How Did We Get Here?

author: Robert A. Weinberg, Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: June 2005,   views: 110
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Robert Weinberg plots the 200-year course of cancer research, finding neglected byways, wrong turns, and astonishing advances. He starts with Percival Pott, a London surgeon who noticed that chimney sweeps often developed a rare kind of cancer. In Europe, where people bathed more often, this cancer was much less evident, leading to “the first indication in public literature that there was a close correlation between one’s experience in life and the incidence of rare cancer,” says Weinberg. In 1910, Japanese scientist Katsusaburo Yamigiwa, painted coal tars onto the ears of rabbits and produced tumors, which “led to the realization that one can experimentally provoke cancer rather than wait for it to arise spontaneously.” He was “overlooked by Nobel,” Weinberg notes. Other similarly unrecognized scientists discovered that transferring leukemic tissue into healthy tissue could induce cancer, and that cancer could be caused by infectious disease. But there were major missteps, says Weinberg. In one notorious episode, a Danish Nobel Prize winner’s cancer research was discovered to be in error. And when Howard M. Temin suggested that cancer originated through an atypical genetic process called reverse transcription, he “was shunned as a pariah.”

In 1970, Temin was vindicated as he and David Baltimore separately discovered an enzyme central to such a process. Next came the Nixon Administration’s ‘war on cancer,’ which was attacked as a fraudulent waste of taxpayers’ money when seven years of searching for viruses in human tumors produced no results. Yet this dead end suddenly yielded scientific pay dirt in the 80s, when researchers found viral ‘oncogenes’ in the DNA of normal cells, which caused malignancies. Scientists then demonstrated that by altering normal genes, they too could create cancerous cells. Advances in biochemistry have led to “a rapidly evolving conceptualization of how cancer occurs,” says Weinberg. “We’re beginning to talk about cancer as aberrations of an integrated signaling circuit, which if we could only understand its design…" would lead us to be able to restore normalcy to a cancer cell or preferentially, kill it.”

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