Can Evolutionary Clues Cure Cancer?

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A physicist and an astrobiologist team up to explain to medical doctors how knowledge of evolution holds the key to curing cancer.

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Curing cancer is high on everyone’s wish list for the 21st century. Could the key be billions of year’s old? A National Cancer Institute project to “rethink cancer from the bottom up” has spawned a study asserting that oncologists need to seek the cancer cures for the present in clues from the evolutionary past.

Reverse Evolution

Physicist Paul Davies and astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver believe that cancer cells are simply cells that have reverted to their evolutionary ancestral state to cope with the challenges they face. This is called an “atavistic” model. (Atavism means reversion to an ancient, primitive, or ancestral state.)

Scientific American explains that because cancer occurs in so many different kinds of living things—people, animals, and plants—we know it evolved way back when everything alive shared a common ancestor. And what was that ancestor? Why a single-celled organism, of course! And what do single-celled organisms do better than anything else? They proliferate. They multiply. They are practically immortal, dividing and dividing and dividing. Just like cancer cells. Ergo, cancer has a very ancient evolutionary history. Or so their story goes anyway.1

The Early Earth

Davies, Lineweaver, and oncologist Mark Vincent believe that knowledge of cellular evolution would reveal better targets for cancer treatments. They say conditions on the early earth when life evolved—presumably highly acidic and oxygen-poor—are the conditions cancer cells, like their most ancient evolutionary forebears, like the best. Therefore they advise, among other things, creating the opposite conditions to fight cancer.

Cancer cells often develop a preference for metabolic pathways that are less efficient but suited to low oxygen (more anaerobic) conditions. Your cells ordinarily reserve these anaerobic metabolic pathways for times when oxygen is in short supply, like when you are running so fast you can’t keep up with the oxygen needs of your muscles. In “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model” published in the journal Bioessays, the authors explain that this metabolic shift in cancer cells is an example of their atavistic reversion to early earth’s conditions.2

With cancer, every patient is a time bomb. To spend their precious time, not to mention millions in public and private research funds, on evolution-based strategies rather than on testable observational science is simply wrong.

And why, we might ask, would reverting to their evolutionary ancestral state cause cancer cells to abandon more efficient forms of glucose metabolism? Because evolutionists believe that the more efficient form of glucose metabolism and energy production, which occurs in mitochondria (commonly called “the powerhouse of cell”), is a more recent evolutionary innovation.3

Therefore, they suggest treating cancer with hyperbaric oxygen therapy and low sugar diets. And because such treatments have been tried and reported in the hands of some to be of possible benefit, they imply that the proof is in the proverbial primordial pudding.

Oxygen therapy for cancer is not a new idea, and many investigators have tried it, though not to challenge cancer cells with conditions foreign to the ones in which their forebears evolved. Unpublished work by Costantino Balestra in Brussels for instance says oxygen therapy may impede the growth of leukemia cells. However, that study had nothing to do with testing evolutionary ideas, and any success has to do with the characteristics of cancer cells in the present, not the conditions in which life presumably evolved.

But were earth’s early years actually characterized by a low oxygen, highly acidic environment? Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling explains evidence that should disabuse our readers of this fallacy:

The notion of the earth’s early atmosphere being reducing and conditions on the early earth being anoxic is the geologic equivalent of an urban myth. The deepest and thus earliest rocks in the geologic record indicate there has always been lots of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. For example, in some of the earliest rocks are massive concentrations of iron oxides, which could only have accumulated under an oxygen-rich atmosphere. More details and examples can be found in this article “The First Atmosphere—Geological Evidences and Their Implications.” And conditions could not have been acidic either, because the earliest fossilized forms in the geologic record are stromatolites built by cyanobacteria that are identical to those still being built today by essentially the same cyanobacteria in places where the waters are not acidic and the atmosphere is oxygen-rich.

On the Offensive Against Cancer

Traditionally many cancer therapies have focused on trying to decrease the number of cancer cells by killing them off, preferably without killing off lots of normal cells in the process. Proliferating is what cancer cells do best. And in the evolutionary view, this is the most deeply ingrained ability of cells. Therefore Lineweaver, Davies, and Vincent say that attacking cancer this way is fighting a losing battle because it only targets cancer’s strengths without addressing its weaknesses. They recommend instead challenging cancer cells to cope with conditions that only more highly evolved normal cells should be able to handle.

How should evolutionary oncologists pick their targets? Atavistic-based therapy would require a clear knowledge of the order in which primordial cells evolved the abilities to do the many things cells in multicellular organisms do. For instance, all cells are susceptible to DNA damage, and they have a lot of DNA repair mechanisms built in to fix problems. Cancer cells tend to have a lot of damaged DNA, and some of their DNA repair mechanisms are often “broken.” The study’s authors write that a knowledge of the order in which the various DNA repair strategies evolved would reveal the optimal way to destroy cancer cells while sparing normal ones:

A prediction of the atavistic model is that these incapacitated DNA repair systems will generally be the more recently evolved.

The many mechanisms for DNA repair did not all evolve at the same time. Phylogenetic dates for their origin remain sparse, although there is some evidence that one kind of non-homologous end joining pathway (D- NHEJ) evolved more recently than another kind (B-NHEJ) and would thus be more likely to be lost as cancer progresses.

Why do the authors contend the D-NHEJ repair pathway is more recently evolved? Because this mechanism of DNA repair is more prevalent in “higher eukaryotes than in lower eukaryotes or prokaryotes.”4 In other words, more recent evolution is assumed because of the unverifiable evolutionary presumption that molecules-to-man evolution from simple to more complex cells occurred and because they assume that prokaryotic cells and so-called “lower” eukaryotic cells are the evolutionary ancestors of “higher” eukaryotic ones.

Then to prove the correctness of predictions made using their philosophy the authors explain the mystery of why radiation therapy is effective:

An obvious therapeutic strategy emerges from the foregoing considerations. If cells are targeted with a restricted set of DNA damaging agents, namely those for which the damage can be repaired by the D-NHEJ pathway, then normal cells will be less adversely affected than cancer cells.3

It happens that conventional radiation therapy kills cancer cells by breaking their DNA in a way ordinarily repaired by D-NHEJ, supposedly the more recently evolved pathway. Voilá! The authors contend that radiation therapy is effective because the normal cells have functioning D-NHEJ and the cancer cells have reverted to an earlier evolved state in which D-NHEJ had not evolved.5

The circular reasoning here should be obvious.

Building Hopes on the Imagined Sands of Time

The entire approach to oncology recommended by these authors rests on the unobservable unverifiable assumptions of molecules-to-man evolution. To implement them, first of all such evolution would have to be true—which observational science cannot demonstrate. Then the actual order of the steps in the evolution of life from its simplest origins at the most detailed biochemical level would have to be known. Yet nothing in biological science has shown any way for life to evolve from non-living elements, nor any way for organisms to acquire the genetic information to evolve into more complex organisms, nor even any way for single-celled organisms to evolve into multicellular ones. And claims about the order in which various cellular functions and components and pathways evolved are just specious presumptive just-so-stories.

The authors believe they can prove their claims by data-mining the records of genetic aberrations associated with cancer cells and proving the more-recently evolved genes in cells are the ones that are dysfunctional in cancer cells. Yet this is basically another exercise in circular reasoning. Evolutionary scientists simply assume that more complex and more highly-differentiated genetic functions are more recently evolved, but they have no way of showing that any gene is more highly evolved than any other. The historical record provided in the God’s Word by the Creator of all indicates otherwise.

Building Hope on the Solid Rock and His Word

God created all kinds of life on earth about 6,000 years ago. Therefore all the genetic information needed to build cells of all sorts—from single-celled microbes to the cells in marigolds, mice, monkeys, and men—has been on earth for about 6,000 years, not billions. Much has gone wrong in the perfectly good world God created since sin’s curse affected everything, and therefore we see cancer and so many other diseases. We are thankful that medical science has made progress to relieve much suffering, yet we know that this is an uphill battle that will continue until Jesus Christ returns to make all things new, wipe out suffering, and defeat death.

Observational Medical Science

Cancer specialists who do research and take care of sick people will, we can only hope, see through the absurdity of this evolutionary “logic” and stick with observational science rather than basing future therapeutic innovations on “predictions” based on evolutionary speculation.  Cancer is a complex disease, and the cellular physiology that must be unraveled to deal with it are far more complex than many people imagine.

Oncological research has not been mired in a primitive state awaiting evolutionary enlightenment but has focused on ways to exploit whatever can be observed about the newly discovered secrets of cells. Indeed, cancer research and treatment protocols that spring from it are far more complex than this simplistic so-and-so-evolved-first evolutionary paradigm would suggest. As Wayne State University oncologist Dr. David Gorski explains, “The ‘predictions’ of atavism are nothing that scientists haven’t come to by other paths.”

First Do No Harm

Is there any harm in basing new cancer therapies on evolutionary fairy tales? Absolutely. With cancer, every patient is a time bomb. To spend their precious time, not to mention millions in public and private research funds, on evolution-based strategies rather than on testable observational science is simply wrong. Medical decisions should be based on testable clinical science, not on vain evolutionary conjecture that can contribute no more to actual medical practice than any other imaginative superstition.

Read more about the reasons molecules-to-man evolution has no valid place in medicine in “Do Medical Schools Need To Teach More Evolution?” “Editorial Exhorts Veterinarians and Physicians to Embrace Evolution,” and in the other articles listed below.

This information is intended for general education purposes only and is not intended as professional medical advice.  The information should not be relied upon as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or other healthcare professional. If you have specific questions about any medical condition, diagnosis, or treatment, you should consult your doctor or other healthcare provider.

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  1. Put in more precise evolutionary terms, the authors of the study write: “Current therapeutic treatments attack the strengths of cancer: they predominantly target what cancer cells, and all cells, have deeply embedded in their genomes—strategies for cellular proliferation. It may seem rational to treat a proliferative disease with anti- proliferative drugs. However, after ~4 billion years of evolution (the first ~3 billion of which were characterized by the largely unregulated proliferation of unicellular organisms) cellular proliferation is probably the most protected, least vulnerable, most redundant and most entrenched capability that any cell has. The redundant and robust supports for cellular proliferation are ~2 billion years older than the many layers of recent differentiation and regulation that evolved with multicellular eukaryotes.” From C. Lineweaver et al., “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model,” Bioessays 36 (2014): 827. 
  2. In “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model” they write: “Prior to the second great oxygenation event about ~ 0.8Gya, our ancestors metabolized in either anoxic or hypoxic conditions. These conditions prevailed at the transition to multicellularity. The atavism theory therefore predicts that cancer cells will generally prefer hypoxic conditions, and use metabolic pathways appropriate to hypoxia. This seems to be the case. As cancer progresses, there is usually a shift in the balance of energy metabolism away from oxidative phosphorylation and towards aerobic [sic] glycolysis. That is, even in the presence of oxygen, cancer cells perform a less efficient form of ATP production that uses glucose. This is known as the Warburg Effect.” From C. Lineweaver et al., “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model,” Bioessays 36 (2014): 827.
  3. C. Lineweaver et al., “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model,” Bioessays 36 (2014): 827. 
  4. Page 430 in K. Kim et al., “Baicalein (5,6,7-trihydroxyflavone) reduces oxidative stress-induced DNA damage by upregulating the DNA repair system,” Cell Biology and Toxicology 28 (2012): 421–433, doi:10.1007/s10565-012-9233-y. This recent research describes the older research referenced in the Lineweaver study.
  5. The authors, who call their evolutionary approach to oncology the “target-the-weakness strategy,” write: “Thus, to the extent that the dysfunctional parts of these DNA repair mechanisms in tumors are the most recently evolved parts, some of the success of radiotherapy and conventional cytotoxic chemotherapy may be attributable to an inadvertent target-the-weakness strategy.” From C. Lineweaver et al., “Targeting cancer’s weaknesses (not its strengths): Therapeutic strategies suggested by the atavistic model,” Bioessays 36 (2014): 831.


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