Archives For cancer


When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

lexi belle

Ok, so it’s not the most tactful and well thought out fundraiser for breast cancer research ever, but at least PornHub’s heart was in the right place when it announced that it would donate one cent per every 30 views of adult videos in certain obvious categories. It might seem rather low but considering that adult ads pay a few dollars per 1,000 views, they’re actually taking a pretty good chunk out of their revenues and that’s before we account for the considerable bandwidth expenses. Wouldn’t you know it though, nobody seems to want to take their money lest cancer research be forever tainted with the scent of porn. I mean come on, follow the logic, first science takes cash from adult entertainment and next thing you know, the morality genes in cancers are going to get wise to what went into making the treatments and refuse to let the tumors die when doused with a new experimental therapy. Cancers have prudish morality genes, right?

Now, certainly, I can understand why high profile non-profits wouldn’t want to be associated with porn and why they would find the idea of raising money through soliciting views of graphic adult videos to be rather crass and exploitative. And we can even go as far as to say that millions of dollars in free-floating research funds aren’t exactly stuck in a moralistic limbo so it’s not a major problem per se. However, we do need to consider that cancers don’t exactly care about funding sources for their treatment and a therapy made possible by money from porn tycoons may work just as well or even better than money raised through a corporate fundraiser or religious charity drives because in the end, all money is green — at least in the United States — and all of it can enable researchers to do more experiments, conduct more basic research, and test more ideas for effectively fighting cancerous tumors or even preventing them in the first place.

There are times when appearances are important and we have to be discriminating about how the money we use for R&D gets to the researchers to prevent conflicts of interest and attempts at whitewashing serious misdeeds, but there are also times when any cash should be accepted because the problem it’s supposed to help solve cares nothing about our opinions on sexuality, entertainment, or values. Cancers claim both crime bosses and selfless givers, prostitutes and prudes, ardent fundamentalists and atheists. Right now we’re at a stage when we know enough about cancers to start fighting them but not nearly enough to subdue them, and we’ll need a lot more money, time, and hard work to get to our goal of keeping patients in permanent remission, money for which we often have to beg, time we rarely have, and work few are qualified to do. So to reject any donation meant to fight such a complex and widespread problem for political and prudish purposes is a luxury that we really can’t and shouldn’t be willing to afford.

[ illustration: porn starlet Lexi Belle ]

The city of San Francisco wants you, the discerning cell phone consumer, to know just how much radiation is emitted by your phone by requiring retailers to display the phones’ specific absorption rate. Now, when you get that new smartphone, you’ll know your body will absorb no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram, or 1 J per kg per second, or approximately 1.6 Gy when you use it. What do all those numbers actually mean? We can talk about how cell phones emissions are tested and certified by the FCC, and convert our units of radiation into a few different formats if we want, but ultimately, these numbers are pretty much meaningless. Instead of letting cell phone buyers know anything useful, requiring information about a phone’s SAR makes it sound as if their devices might suddenly turn evil, attacking them with deadly beams of ionizing radiation if they’re not watching.

Of course, just requiring that retailers display the SAR information is more reasonable than the attempts of a lawmaker from Maine to put cancer hazard warnings on cell phones in December of last year, but it does seem to run in the same vein. The problem is that r-word, the word that people learned to fear thanks to more than enough horror movies about monstrous mutants and Cold War era portrayals of how nuclear fallout will kill millions of people should the nukes ever start flying. Fear of anything which can be described as emitting radiation outside of medical devices is so pronounced for so many people, groups protesting against nuclear power will gratuitously use it as one of their favorite scare tactics, never mind that simply moving to higher elevations would expose you to far more radiation than living next door to a nuclear power plant. And that’s the fear which makes so many people think that radiation from cell phones will cause brain cancer, despite there being absolutely no evidence linking cell phone radiation to any malignancy.

There have been a number of studies trying to find a link, but every review found them inconclusive and too broad and permissive to pin down a convincing correlation, much less find a causation mechanism. The only experiment which claims to have shown that cell phone radiation can allow cancers to exploit certain genetic pathways was done on a cell culture rather than an actual organism, and experts say that the results are a far cry from the kind of activity cancerous cells exhibit in the real world. So all those joules, watts and gray units to be displayed next to new cell phone models in San Francisco’s electronic stores and wireless carriers’ shops are effectively just meaningless numbers which will make more people worry than become informed about a statistic that’s been closely monitored and regulated by a government agency since the dawn of mainstream cell phone technology, and this law only serves to indirectly promote the old cliché of “wow, I bet those things give you brain cancer” from the 1980s, when cell phones looked like bricks with antennae and buttons.

They sneak in, find and neutralize their target with a complex biological weapon, then sneak out before they’re even detected. No, they’re not a special forces squad from a spy novel. They’re actually 70 nanometer particles which could become one of the most important weapons in fighting cancers if their promise is proven in large and well designed studies, and have potential applications in the realm of gene therapy, something that’s still more science fiction than science fact. The particles themselves are polymers and a protein designed to bind to receptors on the surfaces of cancer cells and deliver a payload of RNA which effectively silences a key gene in tumor growth, co-opting strategies used by viruses to infect cells and make more copies of themselves for altering gene expressions in target cells. But they’re not quite ready for use yet and have some limitations…

One of the most important things to note is that these particles don’t actively kill cancer cells despite reports to the contrary by a number of tech blogs. Instead, what they do is introduce a strip of ribonucleic acid known as small-interfering RNA, or of you’re a fan of biological acronyms, siRNA. The goal is to shut down the day to day process of encoding the instructions of the target gene RRM2 into a protein by attaching the siRNA to a cell’s messenger RNA, or mRNA, used to transcribe the instructions from DNA and deliver them to the ribosome in which the different amino acids are strung together into proteins. The siRNA cuts off the mRNA’s instructions at specific spots and the gene being decoded is ignored in the ribosomes. Without the protein designated by the RRM2 gene, cancer cells have trouble multiplying and tumor growth is severely affected. While the tumors already there won’t be killed in the process, the siRNA delivering particles should give oncologists more time to deal with the cancer by more traditional means like surgery and chemotherapy, perhaps even extending the impact of treatments to later stage cancers which could be virtually shut down by these polymers.

Theoretically, one could use the same method to shut down any gene you want to target and someone rather bold may even want to try to apply it to developing fetuses to counter the future effects of genetic diseases that could be found by standard DNA tests. However, the actual efficacy of this technique is still a somewhat open question. Large scale biological systems are very fluid and what one would logically expect to work is always subject to the myriad of unique difference from one organism to the next. This is why different people can have very different effects to the same medication and many drug trials end in disappointment. So far, the polymers delivering anti-RRM2 siRNA has been tested in just 15 melanoma patients of which only three volunteered to submit a sample via biopsy. Nevertheless, the initial findings seem encouraging. The mRNA extracted from a number of cancer cells had the exact length and sequences the researchers expected to find if the siRNA did its job. Likewise, one of the samples had lower levels of the protein encoded by RRM2 at the end of the study than it did before. All this adds up to a very good proof of concept, albeit in a very limited sample.

However, it’s not yet clear how many of these particles would have to be injected to halt the growth of an entire tumor and whether the required doses would be safe. They should have no side-effects since they’re all built to attack only one, specific gene that occurs in certain cells, and find their targets by passively floating through the bloodstream until they spot a blood vessel supplying blood to a tumor and hitch a ride to the collections of target cells without interacting with anything else in the body. Even if some of the polymers attach to the wrong set of proteins on a healthy cell, their siRNA payload shouldn’t be able to do anything harmful since the gene’s expression appears to be mostly associated with cancers. Or at least that’s how things appear so far. There’s really no telling how well patients would react to large doses of these particles until there’s a standard clinical double-blind study involving significant patient populations. Additionally, the studied tumors were taken from melanoma patients and because cancers are actually a family of diseases which cause runaway cell division, the polymers in question may need to be customized for many different cancer types and the studies repeated for the various disorders. Finally, we should note that not all cancers form tumors so the polymers would also need to be modified to effectively disrupt the behavior of cancerous cells in these cancer varieties.

See: Davis, M., et. al., (2010). Evidence of RNAi in humans from systemically administered siRNA via targeted nanoparticles Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08956

[ illustration by Hybrid Medical Animation ]

Ok, probably not since the jury is still out as to what risks cell phone use could have, but little things like doing studies and coming to a consensus based on empirical evidence won’t slow down the efforts of Maine State Representative Andrea Boland to propose a bill which would require that every cell phone sold in the state carries a cancer warning. If you’re picturing big boxes alerting you to all kinds of awful health hazards, much like the warning boxes on cigarettes, then you’re on the right track. Looks like ’tis the season for technophobia in New England and the old urban rumor of cell phone induced cancer may be back in the media spotlight…

cell phone ad

There are plenty of cancer studies involving the radiation emitted by wireless devices, however, a big problem with these studies is the delay between the technological advancement of the devices and finding tumors. It could take up to a decade for tumors to grow and over this time, the subjects change five or six generations of cell phones and wireless devices. Which ones are responsible? How did their emissions cause tumors? Are the tumors really cancerous or benign? Is there an identifiable, statistically significant trend in specific cancer types among the heaviest cell phone users? These questions are difficult to answer since there are so many kinds of cancers and tumors, and since cancers are a degenerative condition more likely to appear with age, as we’re living longer and longer lives, it means that more and more people are living to develop cancers and a simple correlation isn’t enough to make the case for cell phones being a major health hazard. There’s also the important issue of how radiation from headsets would even cause tumors.

Still, that hasn’t stopped both doctors and journalists from claiming that our wireless devices are slowly killing us, or at the very least, harming our kids in unpredictable ways. For example, last year, The Independent ran an article which linked cell phone use of pregnant women to behavioral problems in children. Oddly, most of the cited problems sound an awful lot like borderline autism spectrum disorders, so much so, that it’s kind of surprising that anti-vax groups haven’t been going after cell phone makers. The study itself monitored over 13,000 kids born in Denmark during the early 1990s and concluded that mothers using handsets more than twice a day had a 54% chance of seeing their children develop emotional and behavioral problems. And even stranger, when the kids started using cell phones they were 80% less likely to develop certain social skills. It seems, however, that the reporter forgot to look at the study’s abstract, which states that the results may be completely unrelated and could be due to a wide variety of other factors not tracked by the researchers.

But while the article above and others like it seem to follow the Science News Cycle, sometimes, alarms are being sent out by medical professionals. As noted in the AP story about the proposed bill, preliminary results of a study on cell phone use prompted the director of University of Pennsylvania’s cancer center to send out a warning which asked to keep children away from headsets for the safety of their developing brains. Since the study wasn’t named, it’s hard to track down its actual results, however the fact that doctors are jumping on one of the oldest technophobic urban legends of the last few decades is disconcerting. This is a situation in which you need skeptics to look over the available information and decide if there really is any evidence for the a cell phone induced spectrum of cancers. So far, studies seem to show either a slight risk of benign tumor growth or absolutely no notable effects of cell phone use. Research projects that find any risk of malignancy tended to suffer from poor controls or had a sample too small to be meaningful. This is why it’s been so hard to reach a consensus on the issue and the researchers tend to stay away from making definitive claims.

So with all due respect to Rep. Boland, but her gesture to protect the citizens of her state is based on over-the- top media reports rather than sound science and would more likely scare people and propagate urban myths than help avoid cancers or other health hazards. What this example shows us, is just how easily bad science in the press can become pointless laws and why we need responsible, skeptical science reporting instead of scary stories about cell phones frying people’s brains extra crispy with deadly radiation, based on skimming a study which makes no claims to this effect. It might not move as many papers or generate that many hits, but it would cut down on senseless panic and potentially, needless and confusing laws.

See: Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, & Olsen J (2008). Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 19 (4), 523-9 PMID: 18467962

While surfing the web, reader Jypson found one of’s lists of scientific trivia which tackled the constant carcinogen scares over the last few decades and found five urban myths to debunk. And as you read through the article, you might notice a common thread; anecdotal evidence with no scale or context being hyped up by the media as a breathless, sensationalistic story. The aspartame scare which prompted warning labels on some brands of soda is a great example…

… according to the report, laboratory rats that were subject to Aspartame in cool, refreshing diet sodas were found to have an increased chance of getting lymphomas or leukemia, which are neither cool nor refreshing. […]

Those animals were introduced to amounts of Aspartame so massive they are worthy of song and legend. To put it in perspective, the rat with the smallest trace of cancer was introduced to the human equivalent of 8 cans of diet soda a day. The most cancer-tastic rat had about 2,083 cans a day.

Usually this is the part where I try to present an analogy to put how absurdly high these numbers are if we were to apply them in the real world, but I think it seems pretty cut and dry that no human could possibly drink just over 195 gallons of soda per day. In fact, just a few gallons of any fluid would be lethal.

Looks like those of us who need a tan will have to find another way to get it. According to oncologists, the ultraviolet radiation used in tanning beds to stimulate the oxidation and production of melanin in our skin is a cancer hazard. When we consider that UV light is mutagenic, that’s hardly surprising. After all, millions of people turned to tanning beds because we know that UVB rays in sunlight can cause skin cancer. The thought was that the UVA rays primarily used in tanning salons are less dangerous, but research in mice exposed to all types of ultraviolet radiation developed really disconcerting mutations. Statistical studies which tracked the occurrence of skin cancer in humans found that people who started using tanning beds before the age of 30, had a 75% greater chance of developing the condition.


Oh the things we do to look attractive. We wear uncomfortable clothing, pierce our flesh with metal and fry our genomes with radioactive byproducts of stellar fusion. Ironically enough, melanin is supposed to be our protection against excessive exposure to sunlight. When we tan, we’re deliberately stressing our body’s defenses to change our skin to another shade of brown, often with little attention to what will happen down the line as we keep subjecting ourselves to continuous UV damage season after season. But don’t expect people now armed with new information about the dangers of long term exposure to ultraviolet light to cut back on their visits just yet.

The primary reason most people get a tan is purely cosmetic and they won’t feel any consequences for years. This is where our personal desires take over, calculating the balance between serious cancer risks in the indeterminate future and looking good at a party next week. And that calculation is probably not going to be a wise one since next week’s get together is usually going to win out. Then there’s going to be another event on the social calendar and it’ll also take precedence over long term health. And another. And another. Skip a few years down the road and suddenly really strange moles start popping up and dermatologists are shaking their heads and taking biopsies while their patients wonder what happened.

Of course, there’s a way out. Instead of using some sort of tanning light, those of us who want a bronzed look could use sunless tanning sprays and lotions which won’t damage your DNA in the process. Sure, you’ll have to apply them on a regular basis and they’ll wear off faster than a UV induced tan but when you consider the risks, maybe going to a tanning salon a few extra times a month is worth the hassle…

making cancer in a can?

March 28, 2009

It’s been a long running staple of science fiction movies. A biochemical giant finds an amazing new business opportunity. Some compound or plant in an exotic location is able to alter or remove the limits on cell division in the human body. The “scientists” in the R&D department declare that turning whatever this infinite cell divider is into a pill would create a multi-billion dollar market and help extend human lifespan to extremes we could only dream of. But those are movies. In real life what those “scientists” would be doing is creating something like cancer in a can. There’s a good reason to let our cells stop dividing.


Cell division in humans, and all other animals, is regulated by telomeres; regions of redundant hereditary material on the ends of a chromosome. Without them, chromosome ends for a new cell would come unraveled and all the codons it contains would be lost. But as cells divide, their telomeres shorten until they start unraveling. When they do, their home cell stops dividing and might even commit suicide when there’s too much damage to the chromosomes. And that’s a key component in suppressing cancerous tumors. Cancerous cells can regenerate their telomeres and as they grow out of control, they form tumors which invade nearby tissues and metastasize to spread throughout the body.

This isn’t so cut and dry though. We don’t know how humans would respond to a treatment of compounds that lengthen their telomeres. We only know that nematodes with longer telomeres would have longer lifespans and their offspring would inherit the extended telomeres, also with the longer lifespan seen in their parents. But would the same apply to humans? Human aging is rather complex and just having longer telomeres might not do all that much for us. And there would always be a concern that some of our cells would overdose on the treatment to become cancerous and create tumors. Either way, having us take pills to dramatically change how many times our cells could divide or giving these cells immortality is not a good idea. In fact, it may be an effective way of causing cancers on demand.

When the first cell phones went on sale, somebody, somewhere looked at those brick sized devices and said: “Holy crap, I bet this freaking thing gives you brain cancer!” So for the last few decades, doctors and scientists have been trying to figure out if that’s indeed the case and whether using your cell phone might just cost you a brain.


A conclusive answer to this question would affect not only some 3 billion people or 45% of the world’s population, but the future of Third World countries where the lack of an infrastructure that could support business operations means that cell phones are fast becoming the de facto communication device. Who would invest in a country where the only cost effective method of staying in touch with anyone out of earshot is pumping carcinogenic radiation into an organ most people would consider rather important? Given the significance of the research and some two decades of studies and survey projects, we should’ve had a definitive answer as to whether cell phones are a health hazard or not by now.

But that’s easier said than done. A new generation of cell phones comes out every year. A brain tumor takes over a decade to develop. By the time you can put together a study to see how cell phones affect their users, the technology and the habits you’re studying are already outdated. On top of that, studying something over a decade means that most participants drop out long before your data collection is done and you’ll end up with too few people to make your survey meaningful on a macro scale. Of course just because it’s challenging to find a link between cell phones and cancer, doesn’t mean scientists stopped trying. Case in point, the biggest research project on the subject; the Interphone Study which worked with tens of thousands of people in fourteen countries since the late 1990s.

According to the group’s data, people who use their cell phones at least once a day for over ten years are facing a 50% increase in their chances of developing brain tumors. Quite a few of the cases would be malignant. But before you start wondering if you should get a hazmat suit next time you want to use your cell, you might want to keep in mind that the study’s data collection phase was conducted in 1998 and 1999 and the technology being linked to new cancer cases is long gone. On top of that, the Interphone Study is very limited in its scope and is very vague on the most important question. How exactly does the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones cause cancer? Causation is just as important as correlation.

Maybe rather than collecting extremely limited data sets and analyzing them for years on end, we should be studying the effects that cell phones have on living things more closely. After all, if we really want to find out whether our handsets are ticking time bombs, a research project that only studies talking on a phone with a GSM chip once a day or more and analyzes its data sets for almost a decade while the world leaps ahead, just doesn’t cut it.