Cancer, Super Heroes and Zombie Genes


A guy with breast cancer ponders some of cancer's puzzling peculiarities.

When I was a kid, I had a serious case of chicken pox. I remember having to stay home from school and in my bed for a couple of days. I also remember the very high fever that throbbed in my head like a locomotive. I asked my parents how I had caught the illness, and I recall my father trying to explain viruses and how they work. He used the analogy of a burglar trying to break into my immune system to steal my health and he told me I had to become a "super hero" like Batman or Spider-Man and eliminate the bad guys from my body.

When I was 64 years old, I was diagnosed with male breast cancer. I was living in Hawaii at the time, where we could grow fresh turmeric in our garden, and it became my daily ritual to juice the roots of this natural anti-inflammatory and drink it as a tonic. I began to imagine myself as a "super hero" battling cancer with my "secret elixir" and powerful immune system.

We know that imagination plays a role in our health and healing. Ted J. Kaptchuk is professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He suggests in a recent article that "the power of imagination has a basis in neurobiology. Recent evidence shows that when placebos have salubrious (positive) effects, they engage the same neurological pathways as active medications."

I began to wonder if there might be some invisible properties in our own bodies, perhaps yet to be discovered, that might act like internal "super heroes" to combat cancer from the inside out. What if we could identify a new, mysterious force in the world of cancer, perhaps at the quantum level, that could alter cancer cells in such a way that they create a super power of sorts, enhancing our ability to annihilate the cancer disease that threatens to kill us?

Enter the Zombie Gene.

First, a little history with regard to its discovery. Scientists have known for years that certain animals, like elephants, have far fewer deaths from cancer than other animals. Since they are large and have a lot of cells and live for a long time, you would think that cancer would be common in the herds. It appears that elephants may have evolved ways to "naturally resist cancer" despite their largeness and longevity.

"Because of their body size and how many cells they have and how long they live, they should all be developing cancer," said Joshua Schiffman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at University of Utah and an investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, in an interview with CNN.

One likely mechanism, according to a paper published in the journal Cell Reports, could be a "zombie" gene that, when brought to life by DNA damage, causes that cell to die off.

"If that cell kills itself, then that damaged DNA never has the potential to eventually give rise to cancer," said study author Vincent J. Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, in the same CNN article.

The zombie gene arose from what's known as a "pseudogene," a mutated or inactive copy of a normal gene that can accumulate over eons of evolution. Elephants, as well as close living relatives like manatees, have many duplications of a gene known as LIF — but these copies don't actually work like the original.

In elephants, however, one copy seems to have reanimated and "evolved a new on-off switch" that responds to DNA damage, Lynch said.

Science and medicine continue to discover wondrous things in the world of cancer detection, prevention and treatment and at an ever-increasing rate. Fortunately, in a world where cancer exists, there are plenty of "super heroes" all around us. I've found them on my surgical team, in my radiology technicians, on my nursing staff, and imbedded within the volunteers I meet in my hospital. And now I've happily added cancer resistant elephants to my list.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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