Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Our Evolutionary Origins Expose Cancer’s Weakness

Credit: kapley/iStockphoto

Credit: kapley/iStockphoto

By Charley Lineweaver

The evolution of cellular regulation has inspired a new model of cancer that predicts ways to attack its weaknesses instead of its strengths.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Medical research has made remarkable progress in combating bacteria, viruses, parasites and the many infectious diseases they cause. However, similar progress has not been made with most common cancers because cancer cells are our own cells, and aren’t easily identified as foreign invaders.

However, a new model of cancer based on abnormal traits called atavisms may change our approach to treating cancer. Atavisms are genetic throwbacks that show up unexpectedly and remind us of what we used to be. For example, most of us have two nipples, but sometimes people are born with “supernumerary” nipples along the milk line running from armpit to groin – the region where our earlier mammalian ancestors had functioning nipples. The actor Mark Wahlberg has a supernumerary nipple under his left breast.

Horses used to have five digits on each foot, like the majority of tetrapods, but modern horses normally only have an enlarged middle toe on each foot. Sometimes horses are born with extra toes. The favourite horses of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had supernumerary toes.

Atavistic features like supernumerary nipples and toes show up because some genes have been misregulated during the development of the embryo. For instance, a horse embryo starts to develop five digits, but 10–50 million years ago the horse lineage evolved genes that shut down the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.