New Ways to Combat Cancer

Cancer cells are smart—but we can be smarter.

Posted Nov 08, 2012

Cancer as An Information System

The very word cancer scares us. The definition of cancer involves “uncontrolled, unregulated growth.” It’s as if the cells that sustain and give us life intimately betray us. They turn our bodies into a deformed version of ourselves. Heretics are more frightening than pagans, especially when the heretics take over—and become you. We make our own vampires.

But in information terms cancer may not be so “uncontrolled.” Recent work has started to look at cancer chemotherapies that disrupt the communications networks between cancer cells. There are many signals that allow malignant tumors to grow, suborn materials, move and direct blood supply, turn “normal” cells into immune decoys, then press for superfast mutation as a way to avoid immune detection while destroying and disabling anti-cancer drugs. In sum, cancer cells are not “a disorganized rabble”. They are smart. They organize. They work together.

What they do have is different kinds of organization—which effectively gives them different “motives.”

Cancer Cells and Bacteria

Life is one of different kinds of information system that works against entropy. As defined by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy is what the universe does. Time disintegrates all—especially information. Life in the forms we presently recognize actively resists that disintegration.

In part by living off other life forms.

Bacteria have been around hundreds of millions of years. They make up the greatest proportion, at least by weight, of life on earth (many of them live underground.) Some are able to slow their metabolism so much, particularly when sequestered inside ice crystals or deep geological layers, that from our historical perspective they may be said to have achieved “immortality.” We possess around 100 trillion bacteria in our gut. Without them our immune system does not work right. We need them for many purposes, like digesting food.

We have co-evolved.

We share a great amount of our DNA with viruses and bacteria. Partly that may be the result of our having evolved from prokaryotes and sharing similar machineries for basic processes of life. But a lot of our shared DNA appears to resulted from constant struggle. Perhaps 8 percent to 12 percent of human DNA comes from retrovirus; the most famous member of that class is the AIDS virus.

The recognition has come that viruses, and particularly bacteria, are informationally complex and intelligent. They can organize together and sense each other. They can move en masse or coordinate actions at a distance. They can mutate rapidly and fight off the immune system and the drugs we propel towards them.

Theoreticians world wide are recognizing cancer cells can act a lot like bacteria.

The Military Analogy

Richard Nixon promulgated the government’s “War on Cancer” forty years ago, but military analogies have been applied to tumors for far longer. Oncologists often think of themselves at war with a tumor - and think about how to destroy them day and night. Some consider their opponents as small, unthinking monsters, others as rebellious tribes which have broken off to take their own territory. More recently the analogy of cancer cells as similar to “terrorist cells” that borrow into the body and hide has gained popularity.

What all these metaphors describe however is a different information system. Cancer cells operate independently and in groups. But unlike the usually highly specialized cells they come from, the level of organization they aim for appears less detailed.

In this way they can look like a “throwback” to the organization of unicellular prokaryotes or so called “primitive” eukaryotes. They fight entropy, but at another level.

Yet the sophistication of their forbears remains very high. Now we know that glioblastoma cells, among tumors, can differentiate into stem cells.

Stem cells are nearly totipotent. They have the capacity to become and transform into many different kinds of tissues.

And only a very few of them are required to survive in order for tumors to  grow yet again. It is no wonder that when tumors convert some of their number to stem cells that fighting them with present methods appears set for failure.

An Elastic Defense

We certainly don’t understand much of present day genetics and immunology. In some ways we are like the creature in Flatland, a two dimensional being incapable of understanding those who live in three.

But the “dimensionality” of our biological and physical systems, as complexity theorists are now arguing, may be far higher—eight or nine or 12. Physicists and mathematicians can wrap their minds around 12 dimensional physical universes much more readily than the public.

Yet we may succeed more effectively  if we see cancers as information systems with different organizing principles—perhaps a bit similar to bacteria—with effectively different “goals." Cells that can become stem cells, and, like immune plasma cells, can also push themselves into quick mutation and “hyperevolution” will remain constant, deadly opponents.

Yet part of the trick of overcoming them will come by when we stop seeing cancer cells as uncontrolled masses susceptible to carpet bombing by chemotherapeutic agents. Instead, if we look on cancer cells as organized and smart, we can see that a series of different defenses should work. Starving them of blood supply, mixing up their communications lines, forcing them into impossible hypermutation, blocking enzymes they need not to survive but to metastasize (aspirin may already be doing this) gives us a shot at controlling the uncontrolled—and always moving the gateposts as we go.

For cancer cells change constantly. So do human beings. Since we understand so little of how they ultimately work, the best way to fight them—still—is to prevent them.

Nutrition and sanitation make a difference. What can really make a difference is lifestyle.

What you do is what you become. How you eat, move, rest, socialize, all affect tumor growth. We don’t know why these elements work, but we know they do. And most of us can choose paths that will make cancer growth more unlikely and postpone certain cancer deaths.

Such approaches will work partially, and not for all of us, but they will greatly aid the health of populations. And that sure beats chemotherapy.