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Cancer that colonizes our bodies

To Robert C. von Borstel, cancer is a metaphorical example of the perfect invasion by a founder species. Like the first pregnant finch that landed on a deserted island in the Galapagos Archipelago, the first cancer cell in the human body has to undergo many mutations through many generations to establish itself as an invader of different organs in the body. But once it is there, like any newly stabilized species in different ecological niches, cancer is tough to get rid of.

The former University of Alberta biologist has been working with DNA ?the molecule that carries our cells?genetic information ?ever since 1947, six years before its structure was described by Watson and Crick. His fundamental Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) work on how radiation can kill cells, how the DNA molecule itself can control mutation, and other research has earned him a fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS).

Now, von Borstel, at the AAAS conference in San Francisco, to be held between Feb. 15 and 19, will deliver a talk about how cancer cell mutation and selection are metaphorically similar to how a new species begins its evolution.

"Of course, the difference with cancer is that it destroys itself when it kills you off, whereas many new species stabilize," von Borstel says. "Obviously, no metaphor is the be-all of reality. But I’m hoping this symposium I am hosting will help people look at cancer in a new light."

After growing up on a wheat and cattle ranch in Oregon, von Borstel was drafted into the U.S. Navy as a seaman first-class in 1944. Following the Second World War, he pursued his university education in the United States and joined Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1953, where he studied the effects of radiation on insects, and described the mechanisms by which control of insect pests by X-irradiation is achieved.

From there, he accepted a position as chai
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Source:Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council


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