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A “fresh perspective” on cancer research in Science on Saturday lecture

Cancer research should focus on the “fundamentals of the origins” of mutating and rapidly reproducing cancer cells that make the disease so difficult to treat. So said Princeton University physicist Robert Austin at the Jan. 28 Ronald E. Hatcher Science on Saturday lecture series at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). 

Austin was the third of nine scientists to speak in the weekly lecture series, which is held at 9:30 a.m. every Saturday through March 18 at PPPL. See the Science on Saturday webpage for a complete schedule.  (There is no lecture Feb. 25 due to the DOE’s New Jersey Regional High School Science Bowl).

Austin, a member of the Princeton faculty since 1979, is head of the Robert H. Austin Research Group in Biophysics, which studies bioorganisms under stress. He was one of many physicists and mathematicians recruited by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to research cancer. He was the principle investigator of the Physical Sciences Oncology Center, sponsored by the NCI, which worked with Johns Hopkins and other institutions on cancer research.

Physics and mathematics bring a fresh perspective to cancer research, said Austin. “Physicists try to face with a cold eye and hard facts what nature says,” he said.

In a sense, scientists like Austin who are trying to replicate the process by which cancer cells mutate are replicating an evolutionary process, Austin said. The ability of cancer cells to replicate themselves and mutate makes researching cancer and curing cancer challenging, he said. For example, prostate cancer generally spreads slowly and is therefore easily treatable. But certain prostate cancers spread rapidly and can often be fatal as a result, Austin said.

Austin and his team replicated multiple myeloma cells in the laboratory. He showed the audience a video of myeloma cells being treated with doxorubicin, a chemotherapy medicine used to treat breast cancer, bladder cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma, and acute lymphocytic leukemia. After a few days, the drug reduced the cancer cells but after 20 days, the cancer cells mutated to drug-resistant cells and began multiplying quickly again. A cocktail of cancer drugs may be more effective than a single drug and can buy the cancer patient time, but ultimately the cancer still mutates to resist the drugs, Austin said.

Austin believes cancer may be an evolutionary response to stress in the body’s system. If that is true, then cancer drugs may be working against nature because they stress the system and may therefore create an environment where cancer can thrive, Austin said. He noted that some oncologists are actually advising patients who have a non-aggressive form of prostate cancer to wait and monitor the cancer rather than starting them on drugs right away.

Some 90 percent of cancers are caused by the environment or lifestyle choices and only 10 percent are genetic, Austin said. He argues that 70 percent of all cancers could be avoided with lifestyle changes. One obvious environmental cause, for example, is smoking, which causes lung cancer, the leading cause of death from cancer in the United States and worldwide, Austin said. While smoking rates are lower among educated people in the United States, cigarette companies are exporting more cigarettes to other countries, he said. Cancer is also caused by other lifestyle choices like tanning or not protecting one’s self from the sun, which is linked to skin cancer. Obesity also contributes to the cancer rate, Austin said. The National Cancer Institute predicts obesity will cause an additional 500,000 additional cancer deaths in the United States by 2030.

Focusing on cancer-resistant genes

Austin believes researchers might be better off focusing on genes that are resistant to cancer rather than researching the genetics of cancer. “There might be certain critical genes that are never allowed to mutate. Maybe those are the ones we should concentrate on,” he said.

When Austin and his team analyzed data on the human genome, they found just 163 genes that never mutated. They then selected those that are “up-regulated,” meaning they have a protective code that may protect them. They found 13 genes that had “up-regulated” four times and were very old. “This is what physicists do,” Austin said. “They look at massive amounts of data and try to get down to the basic kinds of things that may be driving the whole thing.”

An evolutionary purpose

Cancer may have an evolutionary purpose, Austin said. It may be nature’s way of rebooting the body that returns to genes that hearken back to man’s evolutionary origins, he said. “Perhaps cancer represents a return to unicellularity that is represented by these crucial and ancient genes, with cancer abandoning high-level genes,” Austin said.

But Austin said he and other scientists have embarked on a long journey. “There are many fundamental problems in cancer that need to be solved before we go to the moon,” he said.

Audience members appreciative

Audience members were very appreciative of the lecture. “If I had four thumbs, they’d all be up,” said Gary Grubb, of Hightstown, who has been coming to the lectures for 20 years.

“I learn a little bit here and a little bit there. It fills out the world for me,” said Bob Akins, also of Hightstown. “I hope they continue these because I think they’re a very real addition to the community.”

Elisabeth Peters, and her friend, Lucy Tian, both 17-year-old seniors at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, came to a lecture last year and now they say they’re hooked. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool,’” said Peters. “We had a really good time. Today we thought we know the biology and chemistry of cancer so let’s find out about the physics.”  “We’re big science nerds,” Tian added.

Galina Chernaya, of Princeton, a scientist who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said she has been coming to the lectures ever since her son came for a school assignment 10 years ago. “I like the variety of topics,” she said. “I always learn something.”

 “It’s an excellent opportunity for the general public to hear scientists firsthand,” said her friend, Jennifer Hartford, of Princeton, who came for the first time. “We don’t get that opportunity very often. It’s a beautiful thing you’re doing here.”

Vaccines focus of next talk

The next Science on Saturday lecture is a Feb. 4 talk on the “Imperative of Vaccination Nationally and Globally,” by Adel Mahmoud, of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Molecular Biology.  

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.


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