A Science Of Eternal Life

I enjoyed John Steele’s interview at Nautilus with Patrick Soon-Shiong, head of the Cancer MoonShot 2020 Consortium, who argues:

Cancer is actually a part of your physiological normal self. There’s a process called apoptosis by which your normal cells die, like the autumn leaves going brown. Cancer is not just an out-of-control growth — it’s a prevention of death, meaning the cells refuse to die when they should … Cancer represents a breaking of the contract with the human body.

Two thoughts:

First, can science find out how this “refusal to die” works, and use it to more benign ends?

Second, what I take Soon-Shiong to be saying is that the best way to think scientifically about cancer, in our current state of knowledge, is not as a disease nor as a group of diseases, but as a type of behaviour at the cellular level which is triggered by unknown causes and produces results which are either wholly unpredictable or so varied as to be unpredictable in practice.

Soon-Shiong again:

As physicians we’re trained to be reductionist. We rigidly follow protocol. But life is not that way. Cancer is not linear — it is completely non-linear. It lives in the science of chaos … If you biopsy a patient with breast cancer twice in the same day, once in the breast and once in the lymph node, you can get cancer cells with different sequences. Even if you biopsy two different points in the breast, the sequence can be different

Hannah Arendt makes a similar point, in The Life Of The Mind:

The science of physiology and medicine relies on the sameness of our inner organs

Which is to say: no science without replicability.

For example, there is not much replicability in psychiatry, and therefore we not much science. This may improve if and when medicine gets better at treating psychiatric conditions chemically and pharmaceutically.

Soon-Shiong is identifying a similar situation in cancer treatment. Medicine has been concentrating its fire-power at the wrong level, the level of signs and symptoms.

He suggests a two-level approach to treating cancers: micro killing, which means going after the “little targets”, the misbehaving cells; and macro killing, the established techniques of surgery, radiation, immunotherapy.

But if we assume an almost infinite variety in the behaviour of cancer cells, and rapid evolution in that behaviour to evade targeting, then I do not see, logically, how this approach can work.

I presume Soon-Shiong has a greater ambition, which is to discover why cancer cells refuse to die, and what rules determine their behaviour once this happens. At this point we will indeed have a new science — a science of eternal life. I doubt that funding will be a problem.