Cancer ‘as old as multi-cellular life on Earth’: Researchers discover a primordial cancer in a primitive animal

Jul 1, 2014

By Science Daily

Every year millions of people around the world are diagnosed with cancer. Each one of them dreams of a victory in the battle against it. But can cancer ever be completely defeated? Researchers at Kiel University (CAU) in Germany have now reached a sobering conclusion: “cancer is as old as multi-cellular life on earth and will probably never be completely eradicated,” says Professor Thomas Bosch in his latest research results.

The study by an international team led by Bosch was published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The so-called cancer genes are ancient

The causes of tumors are the so-called cancer genes. As from when evolution started producing tumors is an issue that the scientists Tomislav Domazet-Lošo and Diethard Tautz from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön have been investigating for several years, using bio-informational methods and databases that they have developed in-house. “During the search for the origin of the cancer gene, we unexpectedly made a discovery in the ancient group of animals,” explains Domazet-Lošo. He is one of the authors of the present study and is currently working at the Ruder Bošković Institute and the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb. “Our data predicted that the first multi-cellular animals already had most of the genes which can cause cancer in humans.” What was missing until now was, on the one hand, evidence that these animals can actually suffer from tumors and, on the other, the molecular understanding of the mechanisms of tumor formation in these simple animals.

Cause of tumors: error in the programming of cell death

The research team led by the evolutionary biologist Professor Thomas Bosch from the Zoological Institute of Kiel University have now achieved an impressive understanding of the roots of cancer. Bosch has been investigating stem cells and the regulation of tissue growth in Hydra, a phylogenetic old polyp, for many years. “Now we have discovered tumor-bearing polyps in two different species of Hydra, an organism very similar to corals,” emphasises Bosch regarding the first result of the new study. This provides proof that tumors indeed exist in primitive and evolutionary old animals.

The team also tracked down the cellular cause of the tumors along the entire body axis. For the first time they were able to show that the stem cells, which are programmed for sex differentiation, accumulate in large quantities and are not removed naturally by programmed cell death. Interestingly, these tumors affect only female Hydra polyps and resemble ovarian cancers in humans.

21 comments on “Cancer ‘as old as multi-cellular life on Earth’: Researchers discover a primordial cancer in a primitive animal

  • This seems to put the lie to those who insist that the medical profession deliberately avoids trying to cure cancer because they (mysterious ‘they’) earn so much money from maintenance treatments. Unfortunately, the explanation of genetic dysfunction is a bit beyond the conspiracy theorists’ capacity to grasp.

    Report abuse

  • As the particularly aggressive cancers are cells which are no longer regulated by the normal body regulatory processes of multicellular animals to fit their specialist niche in the organism, it would seem they have reverted to the single cell mode of optimising self replication, by out-competing other cells for resources.

    Report abuse

  • Interesting idea Alan4discussion! You inspired me to imagine the ‘wild cells’ that are metastasizing cancer cells, as no longer cooperating as part of the larger organism; instead exploiting the contained primordial conditions that altruistic cells maintain and control. I wonder if cancer cells are a default base replicator, or at least a close cousin of what was ultimately life’s genesis.

    Report abuse

  • Considering the number of cell divisions per minute during our entire lives, I think it’s surprising that the incidence of cancers is so low; especially in light of the level of our indulgence in crappy refined food and booze.

    I avoid the former like the plague – an apt description I think – but I’m a sucker for the latter, so much so that I undergo tests every six months, but thus far I don’t seem to have done myself any mischief.

    I try to compensate for my weaknesses by swimming a mile twice a week, cycling, weight training, and walking when ever possible.

    But of course, justinesaracen, in the UK we’ve had the National Health Service (NHS) for seventy years – no signs of any death camps yet I’m pleased to say – so my treatment is prepaid via taxes, and gratis at the point of use; a fact I never allow myself to forget, whilst at the same time availing myself of it without ever taking advantage of the facilities.

    My opening statement when ever visiting my Doctor is: “I hope I’m not wasting your time.”

    I’m of an age when prostate cancer is a constant danger – what a dog’s dinner that thing is – and since mine has served its purpose, I consulted my GP about having the bloody thing removed; but obviously no surgeon will attempt to remove a healthy organ, so I have to live with this un-exploded bomb up my bum.

    Which is unfortunate to say the least, because it’s a kind of cancer which can metastasize very rapidly and agonizingly into the bones, after which, it’s good night Vienna!

    Had it been designed, it wouldn’t have got past the first feasibility study, but as it stands, it’s a perfect example of how evolution works.

    Well, that’s cheered me up for the day.

    Report abuse

  • Dudes,

    In the spirit of one-upmanship, may I offer for your consideration that one bomb up the bum could never be half as bad as two bombs out the front. Simple math.

    Ummm…you can quit your whining now. 🙂

    Report abuse

  • So, mistakes in replication sometimes have deleterious effects, sometimes have neutral effects, and sometimes (not very often at all) have helpful effects? HMMM. I have heard this before…. Anyway, I gotta say that this comes as no surprise. I am glad it is documented and hope that this research continues and yields important info, but, no surprise at all.

    What is a surprise is that this thread would veer in the bombs in bums direction (thanks Stafford)
    You know, this talk about bombs in front and bombs in bums has me all worked up. (although perhaps not in the way you’d think)…. I am actively fighting the urge to break into schtick and lob a series of crappy (pun intended) jokes out there. But, i am refraining because I do not want anyone to think i am silly.

    Report abuse

  • 10
    rocket888 says:

    “will probably never be completely eradicated” – never is a long time.

    With all the reverse engineering of the cell today, and surely more to come, within the foreseeable future we will be able to repair the damaged DNA. I therefore think it’s quite likely that we will virtually eliminate cancer, just as we’ve virtually eliminated polio. We are now on the threshold of taking evolution into our own hands changing natural selection into the artificial variety.

    When DNA sequencing is as cheap as an x-ray (in say only 10-20 years), we will probably have everyone keep their DNA code on an exabyte flash drive (and backed up in the clouds), with complete version control systems that can roll back the clock (say a baseline at age 10 with a new delta once a year), possibly even having the effect of rolling back aging. Sort of like system drive imaging for the cell. And with programmed (created from a text file) bacteria and/or viruses, we will be able to repair all the damaged DNA of every cell in the body.

    Any time a scientist says something is impossible, it’s usually proven wrong in a few short years.

    Report abuse

  • Maybe cancer will never be completely eliminated but it has certainly made inroads in that direction. The treatment methods may be severe but they’re bearable. Both my grandfathers died of lung cancer a few months after diagnosis. They would have given anything to extend their lives a few more years.

    Report abuse

  • The method of diagnosis these days is amazing! X-ray, CT scan, PET scan and biopsy procedures. It’s then up to the vigilance of the individual to notice any change in the first place. By the time my grandfathers noticed a problem it was too late.

    The irritation to their lungs was not only caused by smoking. One grandfather was exposed to gas during WW1 and the other worked in heavy industry. They didn’t stand a chance.

    Report abuse

  • Interesting thought, Rocket, and you may be right. But if so, it may not be a good thing. People do need to die of something. Or rather, people do need to die. Unless the increase in global longevity is matched by a decrease in global reproduction, we will kill the planet with our garbage and concrete (and wars). I should have also added ‘with an increase in environmental awareness.” And we know how likely THAT is. Of course, I myself do not want to die of cancer (rather a fatal stroke right after a fantastic vacation ), but I don’t know how the planet can cope with billions more fit people leaving their mark.

    Report abuse

  • 16
    Anthony says:

    justinesaracen, I certainly agree that global population is an important issue to consider, but who says that we need to stay on Earth forever? Perhaps we will soon cure aging, perfect our low beta fusion reactors, colonize Mars, cure cancer, and colonize other solar systems. Why not?

    Report abuse

  • Anthony Jul 2, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I certainly agree that global population is an important issue to consider, but who says that we need to stay on Earth forever? Perhaps we will soon cure aging,

    Even if we colonise Mars, the Moon, and the asteroids, there will still be no feasible or economic way to move excess population from Earth to the colonies.

    perfect our low beta fusion reactors, colonize Mars, cure cancer, and colonize other solar systems. Why not?

    Fusion reactors may well power interplanetary or inter stellar travel,

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/06/opinion-we-could-find-life-on-another-planet-do-we-have-the-will/#li-comment-146947

    but resources do not exist to move millions or billions of people from Earth through space, even with very advanced future technology.

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/06/opinion-we-could-find-life-on-another-planet-do-we-have-the-will/#li-comment-146412

    Report abuse

  • cancer is a natural byproduct of the process of evolution. mutations drive both processes. the conclusions in the study are just reinforcing the obvious

    Report abuse

  • Bob Park, emeritus physics prof at U MD, and author of Voodoo Science among many fine works, always had his physics class calculate the energy cost of interplanetary and then interstellar travel. Simple calculation takes the wind out of that sail, irrespective of any potential energy source. The underlying problem is simple math:

    e=mv^2/2 (note v, not c) where e is the kinetic energy of the moving body.

    ps. He is no longer blogging, but his wonderful archives can be read: http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu

    Report abuse

  • wgowen
    .. . always had his physics class calculate the energy cost of interplanetary and then interstellar travel.
    Simple calculation takes the wind out of that sail, irrespective of any potential energy source.

    Perhaps he overlooked solar sails?

    irrespective of any potential energy source.

    … and failed to consider using fusion power with refuelling from minor planets, moons and asteroids?

    The underlying problem is simple math:

    The thing about calculations, is that you need the right inputs!

    History is full of nay-sayers who could not conceive how things could be done, but have now been proved wrong because their calculations were based on the wrong assumptions.

    This should however, be discussed on the above space links rather than here.

    (Mods- please delete the duplicate post above this one as it did not have an edit option so I corrected a typo and reposted. )

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.