Random Chance’s Role in Cancer

George Johnson in The New York Times:

CancerUnlike Ebola, flu or polio, cancer is a disease that arises from within — a consequence of the mutations that inevitably occur when one of our 50 trillion cells divides and copies its DNA. Some of these genetic misprints are caused by outside agents, chemical or biological, especially in parts of the body — the skin, the lungs and the digestive tract — most exposed to the ravages of the world. But millions every second occur purely by chance — random, spontaneous glitches that may be the most pervasive carcinogen of all. It’s a truth that grates against our deepest nature. That was clear earlier this month when a paper in Science on the prominent role of “bad luck” and cancer caused an outbreak of despair, outrage and, ultimately, disbelief.

The most intemperate of this backlash — mini-screeds on Twitter and hit-and-run comments on the web — suggested that the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, must be apologists for chemical companies or the processed food industry. In fact, their study was underwritten by nonprofit cancer foundations and grants from the National Institutes of Health. In some people’s minds, those were just part of the plot. What psychologists call apophenia — the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there — gives rise to conspiracy theories. It is also at work, though usually in a milder form, in our perceptions about cancer and our revulsion to randomness. It takes several mutations, in specific combinations, for a cell to erupt into a malignant tumor. The idea that random copying errors are prominent among them is thoroughly mainstream. What was new about the paper was its attempt to measure this biological bad luck and see how it compares with the two other corners of the cancer triangle: environment and heredity — mutations we inherit from our parents that can give cancer a head start.

More here.

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