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Rebel Cell: Cancer, evolution and the science of life

Geneticist Dr Kat Arney brings you exclusive excerpts from her new book, Rebel Cell: Cancer, evolution and the science of life, exploring where cancer came from, where it’s going, and how we might beat it.

Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that perception just isn’t true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within every complex organism. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. We get cancer because we can’t not get it.

Cancer has always been with us. It killed our hominid ancestors, the mammals they evolved from and the dinosaurs that trampled the ground before that. Tumours grow in pets, livestock and wild animals. Even tiny jelly-like Hydra – creatures that are little more than a tube full of water – can get cancer.

Cancer starts when cells rebel against the social norms of the body, throwing off their molecular shackles and growing out of control in a shambolic mockery of normal life. This is why we can’t avoid cancer: because the very genes that drive it are essential for life itself.

“Multicellular organisms have evolved over a billion years to function as societies of cells, with every unit working in its specified role towards the common good and the propagation of the species rather than the needs of an individual cell.”

“This rigid hierarchy leaves no room for the free-and-easy lifestyle of our single-celled forebears. Disorder will not be tolerated. There’s no space for damaged or disobedient cells. Troublemakers are encouraged to commit suicide for the good of the rest. Old cells are peacefully put to sleep. Strict as it seems, this regime is what keeps us healthy and alive.”

The revolution has raged, on and off, for millions of years. But it was only in the twentieth century that doctors and scientists made any significant progress in understanding and treating cancer, and it is only in the past few decades that we’ve finally begun to make meaningful improvements in survival.

“In cancer, the onslaught of radiotherapy, chemotherapy or molecularly targeted drugs acts as a selective pressure, weeding out sensitive cells and killing them. Yet, there are likely to be a few pockets of resistant cells that make it through to the other side and start growing again.”

“It’s not the fault of the treatment, it’s just evolution in action. The same feature that creates thriving biodiversity is also a bug in the system of life. And like a comic book villain emerging from a toxic swamp with ten times the strength and twice the brutality, what doesn’t kill cancer only makes it stronger.”

Now the game is changing. Scientists have infiltrated cancer’s cellular rebellion and are finally learning its secrets. Seeing cancer in a new way – as rebel cells adapting and evolving within the landscape of the body – is pointing towards new ways of preventing and controlling cancer in the long term or even driving it to extinction altogether.

Full transcript, links and references available online at

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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