DNA and Cancer

Apparently quiet a few sorts of cancer ‘just happen,’ no matter how much fiber we eat, how much we don’t smoke, and how far we run each day.

Or exercise, in my case. Thanks in part to now-replaced defective hips, my running days never really happened.

That doesn’t mean that we’re all gonna die from random cancer. I think it means we should think about paying more attention to testing before symptoms appear.

  1. DNA Code Errors: Mutation and Cancer
  2. Cancer: 2015 and Before

After talking about oddly-under-reported ‘cancer’ news, I kept going; mostly about mutations, and why being healthy is okay:


Science and Me

I’m interested in more than just science.

However, science does interest me; and our knowledge of the universe is changing so fast that running out of fresh material doesn’t seem likely.

It’s one reason that my Friday ‘in the news’ post became my ‘science’ post while this blog was still hosted on Blogger.1

My interest in science started with a childhood fascination with dinosaurs that I never outgrew.

The Space Race helped expand my horizons, and that’s another topic. I started being aware of the creation-evolution hostilities in my teens.

At the time, I didn’t see any point in telling the Almighty how the universe should be run. Eventually I became a Catholic. I still think God’s God and I’m not.

I don’t know why some Christians seem convinced that studying God’s creation threatens faith in God.

Darwin’s natural selection theory arguably getting hijacked by education reformers and liberal Anglicans didn’t, I think, help. (October 28, 2016)

Fallout from that Victorian-era fracas has encouraged quite a few folks with religion blogs to make science a focus — or target — of interest. Finding earnest denunciations of science, particularly what we’re learning about evolution, isn’t hard.

Reality, Reason, and Religion

‘Bible science’ may help explain why I run into folks who apparently see science as concerned with reality and reason — and religion as anything but.

A Wikipedia page says that creation science began when some American fundamentalists started making up their own “science.” That was in the 1960s.

They’ve had a measure of success.

I think they’re sincere, and I’m quite sure they are mistaken.

Some Catholics share my keen interest in science, others don’t.

Some seem as fervently convinced that a long-dead Calvinist is right as their virulently anti-Catholic counterparts.

But some of us have been scientists, including Saints Hildegard of Bingen and Albertus Magnus. Those two helped lay the foundations of today’s science. It was called natural philosophy back then.

In a sense, nobody was a “scientist” until William Whewell coined the term in 1833. And that’s yet another topic. (March 17, 2017)

Lovecraft’s “Placid Island of Ignorance” – – –

I think H. P. Lovecraft deserves credit for realizing that non-human intelligence may not have a particularly “human” appearance: or viewpoint.

At least some scientists are entertaining the same idea. I’ve talked about science, SETI, and assumptions, before. (March 17, 2017; December 16, 2016)

I’m not so impressed by Lovecraft’s attitude toward religion and science. I sympathize with him, however. A bit.

Knowing his cultural and family background helps. So does remembering rabid radio preachers from my teen years, and their rants against commies, Catholicism, and rock music. A new generation is carrying on their tradition of weird and wacky wisdom.

A decade or so back, a zealot broadcast his denunciation of — I am not making this up — modern man’s “effete” habit of growing beards.

In a letter, Lovecraft gave his opinion that spiritual realities “…are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe….” I don’t agree, but I had different opportunities.

His view of the universe and humanity’s growing knowledge was rather bleak, too.

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, … will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

I’ve talked about Lovecraft’s “placid island of ignorance” before. (February 17, 2017; December 16, 2016)

But again, let’s give Lovecraft credit. When he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu, the ‘science will solve all our problems’ attitude was still fairly common. (October 30, 2016)

Oddly enough, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” ends with the narrator revealing a real danger.

“…in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”
(“The Shadow over Innsmouth,” H. P. Lovecraft (1931); via hplovecraft.com)

As I keep saying, science doesn’t threaten faith. Both pursue truth, or should. Trouble starts when or if we start making science, playing canasta, or anything else, more important than God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 144, 150, 21122114, 2500)

– – – and Being Catholic

I’m Catholic, so I can’t ignore realty. I shouldn’t, at any rate. That may need some explanation. Or maybe not, if you read these ‘science’ posts occasionally.

I’m told, and believe, that truth is important. Truth is beautiful — whether it’s expressed in words, “the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality;” in “the order and harmony of the cosmos;” or in other ways. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, 2500)

Faith isn’t threatened by truth. Not the Catholic version. Faith is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

It’s faith and reason. Using our brains is what we’re supposed to do. (“Fides et Ratio,” John Paul II (September 14, 1998); Catechism, 35, 32, 154159, 299)

I’m also told that humility is a virtue.

HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as ‘poverty of spirit’ (2546).”
(Catechism, Glossary)

I think that God created the universe, and that it is “very good.”2 (Genesis 1:131)

Since humility involves accepting reality, saying that I’ll believe part of reality, but not the whole thing, seems like pretty much the opposite of humility.

I’m also told that humans are rational. But we have free will, so thinking is an option, not a requirement. God is rational, too. Also large and in charge. (Catechism, 268, 21122114, 1730, 1934, 1951)

Studying natural processes is a good idea. It’s part of being human, and can help us learn more about God. (Catechism, 3135, 2293)

Sometimes what we learn doesn’t fit with what we assumed about God and the universe.

When that happens, the problem isn’t the natural world or science, it’s not the Bible, and it’s not religion. It’s our assumptions.

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])


1. DNA Code Errors: Mutation and Cancer


(From Getty Images, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(“Many of the genetic mutations in tumour cells such as these are created by DNA-replication errors”
(Nature)

DNA typos to blame for most cancer mutations
Heidi Ledford, Nature (March 23, 2017)

“Nearly two-thirds of the mutations that drive cancers are caused by errors that occur when cells copy DNA, mathematical models suggest.

“The findings, published in Science on 23 March, are the latest argument in a long-running debate over how much the environment or intrinsic factors contribute to cancer. They also suggest that many cancer mutations are not inherited and could not have been prevented by, for example, making different lifestyle choices. It’s a finding that could change how researchers wage the ‘war on cancer’, says study co-author Bert Vogelstein, a geneticist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore, Maryland….”

I agree with Bert Vogelstein. Waging the “war on cancer” depends on understanding what causes it. This study, and the one before it, should help.

Not smoking, sensible exercise, and other conventional ‘prevent cancer’ advice, is still a good idea. However, this study shows that dealing with cancer isn’t that simple.

We’ve learned a great deal since 1869, when Friedrich Miescher discovered nucleic acids. I’ve talked about DNA, Darwin, and getting a grip, before. ( March 10, 2017; October 21, 2016)

The Human Genome Project’s initial analysis of the Human Genome in 2001 answered some questions, and raised more.

For starters, only about 2% of the human genome has code for making proteins. The other 98% didn’t have any obvious reason for being there, so some folks called it “junk DNA.” Not at first glance.

We’ve learned that some of it controls how the protein-coding DNA works, or gets transcribed to RNA, or has another function.3

The rest may or may not do something. We’re still learning.

Maybe it’s just leftover code in the “clay” we’re made from, and that’s yet again another topic. (September 23, 2016; July 15, 2016)

Random: Not Hopeless


(From Cristian Tomasetti, Lu Li, Bert Vogelstein, via Science, used w/o permission.)
(Proportion of cancer-causing mutations affecting women, by type of cancer and cause. Left to right: types where the mutations are inherited; due to DNA replication glitches are “random,” unrelated to either heredity or environment; or caused by environmental factors.)

“…Researchers have tended to emphasize the role of environmental factors in generating cancer mutations, he says. ‘If we think of the mutations as the enemies, and all the enemies are outside of our border, it’s obvious how to keep them from getting inside,’ Vogelstein explains. ‘But if a lot of the enemies — in this case close to two-thirds — are actually inside our borders, it means we need a completely different strategy.’

“That strategy would emphasize early detection and treatment, in addition to prevention, he says….”
(Heidi Ledford, Nature)

Lu Li joined Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein for this year’s followup to the 2015 study.4 Vogelstein is a geneticist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, an NCI-designated Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins U. in Maryland.

I think they know what they’re talking about.

The idea of these studies wasn’t to challenge the wisdom of not smoking and avoiding sunburn. Vogelstein figured taking a closer look at other causes would be a good idea. It looks like he was right.

The first study needed a do-over, partly because the analysis only covered cancer in the United States, and didn’t include breast and prostate cancer.

This time around, the scientists looked at cancer incidence databases from 69 different countries, for 32 kinds of cancer: including those two common forms of cancer.

Like the first one, the 2017 study confirms what we already knew; or suspected. Not getting cancer depends on sensible decisions, having healthy ancestors, and being lucky.

What’s interesting is how much each of those factors matters for various kinds of cancer.

  • Overall
    • Replication errors, about 66%
    • Environmental factors, 29%
    • Inherited mutations, 5%
  • Some lung tumors
    • Environmental factors, 65%
    • Replication errors, 35%
  • Prostate, brain, and bone cancers
    • Replication errors, more than 95%

The lesson here, I think, is not that trying to be healthy is a hopeless cause; that we’re doomed no matter what we do.

Chucking common sense and diving into unhealthy living, on the assumption that life and death are random? That doesn’t seem reasonable, either. Not to me.

The numbers do, I think, suggest that including tests for the more-probable forms of cancer in health maintenance routines are a good idea.

They also hint, maybe, at the reality behind the ‘everything causes cancer’ news items of a few decades back.

Maybe it’s just me, but for while it seemed like everyone with lab rats and typewriter was churning out ‘scientific’ claims that pretty much everything we eat, drink, wear, or breathe, causes cancer.

I do not miss ‘the good old days,’ and that’s still another topic.


2. Cancer: 2015 and Before


(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Most cancer types ‘just bad luck’
James Gallagher, BBC News (January 2, 2015)

Most types of cancer can be put down to bad luck rather than risk factors such as smoking, a study has suggested.

“A US team were trying to explain why some tissues were millions of times more vulnerable to cancer than others.

“The results, in the journal Science, showed two thirds of the cancer types analysed were caused just by chance mutations rather than lifestyle.

“However some of the most common and deadly cancers are still heavily influenced by lifestyle….”

This is the 2015 study that didn’t look beyond American borders, and left out two high-profiles types of cancer. I’ve already talked about the follow-up.

The last sentence I quoted deserves, I think, emphasis. We can’t control everything, but what we do does matter.

Three Dozen Centuries, Still Learning

We’ve known about cancer for a long time.

I put the usual resource link list at the end of this post.5

However — don’t assume that anything I write, or that you find at the Mayo Clinic website, is all you need to know.

Finding a competent doctor, preferably someone who isn’t working for a get-well-quick product line, is generally a good idea.

Cancer isn’t the only disease with abnormal cell growth. There’s hyrotoxicosis and enteropathy, for example; although both are more conditions than diseases. But cancer among the scariest.

We’ve known about cancer at least since the last mammoths of Wrangel Island died. That was around the time Shu-Ninua was running Assyria. We don’t know who wrote the Egyptian medical text mentioning it, about three dozen centuries back.

Edwin Smith bought the manuscript from Mustafa Agha, but we call it the Edwin Smith Papyrus; not the Agha Papyrus. I’ll get back to that, sort of. The last I heard, it’s at the New York Academy of Medicine.

It reflects what we call “a rational and scientific approach to medicine in ancient Egypt.” Other Egyptian medical texts we have from around that time reflect a more magical understanding of disease.6

We get the word “cancer” from Hippocrates. I’ve mentioned him before. (March 19, 2017; October 7, 2016) His word was καρκίνος, karkinos; meaning crab or crayfish. The word became “cancer” in Latin, which is where my language picked it up.

Doctors were arguing about treating cancer with surgery or drugs two millennia back, and still are.

We are learning, though, and getting a bit better at prevention and treatment, so our arguments are somewhat better-informed now.


Mutant Mice, Macaroni, and Killer Tomatoes

Having the sort of brain I do — I don’t recommend the experience — “mutation” reminded me of gene splicing, mutant mice, B movies with lots of screaming and giant insects, and horizontal gene transfer.

We’re learning that the latter has been happening for a long time.

I don’t think that’ll help some folks get any less nervous about mutant mice and other “artificial” organisms, like chickens, macaroni wheat, and dogs. (October 21, 2016; October 7, 2016; July 22, 2016)

Mutations are real, and don’t have much in common with movies like “Them!” “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!,” and “Hell Comes to Frogtown.”

Now that we’re learning how DNA works, scientists can produce mutations. I’m not, however, particularly concerned about real-life replays of “Tarantula.”

Real-life ‘mutants’ can be like those mutant mice in the photo: useful, and not any more scary than the usual variety.

But the new tech can be misused. So can old tech, for that matter, or anything else. (October 7, 2016; January 8, 2017)

I put an unnecessary-long list of ‘mutation’ resources near the end of this post.7 But that won’t stop me from rambling on about DNA, mutations, and all that. No such luck.

When DNA replicates, the result is usually two exact copies of the original.

Even when it’s not replicating, DNA doesn’t just sit there, and occasionally gets damaged. That’s not quite the same as mutation. Our DNA has automatic repair functions, but that sometimes glitches, too.

A mutation is a permanent change in a critter’s DNA base sequence. They’re usually bad news, and sometimes lethal. Once in a great while, a mutation helps the critter stay healthy, live longer, and/or have more offspring.

That connects with evolution, and I mentioned that earlier.

Harmful or beneficial, quite a few things cause mutations: like glitchy DNA repair, molecular decay, chemicals, microcritters, or radiation. Hence movies like “Them!”

Healthy? Good!


(From Correogsk, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

We devote considerable time and effort to staying healthy or recovering health. Most of us, anyway.

But is being healthy okay?

I’ve talked about Saints, sickly and otherwise, before. (August 21, 2016)

Despite the impression some of the more syrupy ‘lives of the Saints’ books may give, misery is not required for holiness.

The short answer is — yes, being healthy is okay. So is trying to get well. Life and health are both gifts from God. Taking reasonably good care of them is a good idea. Making either my top priority, not so much. (Catechism, 2288, 2289)

Prayer is a good idea, too, and taking action. God made a world where the creatures in it, including me, play a role in making things happen. (Catechism, 41, 306308, 25582565)

Helping sick people get better, and find new ways to cure disease, is also a good idea. It’s even okay to transplant organs, providing we don’t kill or maim one person to help another. (Catechism, 22922296, 23002301)

Medical research doesn’t always include autopsies, but it can.

That’s also okay, although I shouldn’t go digging up ‘research material’ in a cemetery without showing respect for the folks whose bodies are buried there. And I shouldn’t kill someone who is dying because I’m impatient to find out what’s been happening inside. (Catechism, 2258, 22762279, 2299, 2301)

The rules aren’t as arbitrary as they might seem, and that’s — another topic.

Togas and Frankenstein’s Alchemy Project

Many cultures, mine included, are at best uncomfortable with autopsies. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were flat-out illegal in parts of “Christian” Europe.

That may explain the lasting popularity of Shelley’s “Frankenstein” tale. Mary, not Percy. It was Victor, actually, and I’m rambling again. (August 5, 2016)

As far as I can tell, the aversion to autopsies didn’t come from progress-hating clerics, feeding on the ignorance of a superstitious rabble. (October 30, 2016; July 15, 2016)

The European branch of Western civilization inherited much of the ancient Roman set of values and scruples, which had thoroughly pagan roots long before our Lord arrived.

Old Roman values aren’t particularly bad, but let’s get a grip: the Roman Senate did not write the Decalogue. I don’t have to wear a toga to be a Christian.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with studying the natural world: including our bodies. We don’t worship nature — that’d be idolatry — so we can study it without fear of offending ‘the spirits.’ (Catechism, 282283, 21122114)

Greco-Roman culture and beliefs didn’t allow autopsies. That’s why Galenus studied monkeys. I’ve mentioned him before. (July 15, 2016)

Today’s medical science and technology arguably exists in large part because Christianity’s attitude toward the study of nature allows autopsies and other scientific research. Where folks accept the Catholic attitude toward using our brains, anyway.

I’ve mentioned that before, too. Also Lovecraft’s “placid island of ignorance,” and I’m starting to repeat myself. Time to quit, and get started on the next post.

More about science, health, and doing what’s right:


1 My old posts are still there. Some of the content is quite dated by now:

2 “Good” and “idiot-proof safe” are not the same thing. I’ve talked about that, and our place in the universe, before:

3 DNA:

4 Studying cancer causes:

5 Still learning about cancer:

6 We’ve got more records from ancient Egypt’s multi-millennia history than we do for some civilizations. But we don’t have everything:

7 Mutations:

About Brian H. Gill

I’m a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I’m only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.

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3 Responses to DNA and Cancer

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by science but never been good at it. As a Christian, however, believing that God created the Universe and what is in it, I have often wondered: Is it possible that He only created us. No other species anywhere else out there? And if “Yes”, then did they also sin and did He send them a Son to redeem them?

    That’s how my faith and my science get mingled up and send my brain wandering … or is it wondering?

    God bless.

    • In my case, it’s often both wandering and wondering. 🙂

      Being what and who I am, I can’t leave at that – – – – –

      About the possibility that we have neighbors who aren’t human: informed opinions have swung between ‘we are alone’ and ‘we have neighbors’ ever since natural philosophers realized that the possibility existed. The current swing seems to be toward the ‘neighbors’ option.

      As far as I know, there is no official statement on the matter. However the Condemnations of 1277 established that God decides what is and is not real: not Aristotle. The Condemnations have since been rescinded, but not the ‘God’s God, Aristotle’s not’ principle.

      If we have neighbors, and that is still “if,” their state of grace is even more speculative. I suspect they didn’t sidestep the primordial rebellion that eventually led the first of us to make a profoundly imprudent decision. But that is also speculation.

      Whatever their current relationship to our Creator, how and whether they fit into the Son of God’s rescue mission will be – – – very interesting to discover. I certainly won’t insist on any one scenario, since I know about the 1277 decision.

      I haven’t touched on the ‘salvation’ aspect, but I have discussed the possibility and some implications of meeting neighbors. The extraterrestrial intelligence tag will give a list – last December’s “SETI: What If?” is a pretty good overview of how I see parts of the question. ( http://brendans-island.com/catholic-citizen/seti-what-if/ )

  2. Thank you. I’ll go and read the link right now.

    God bless you, Brian.

Thanks for taking time to comment!