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Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, and bestselling author. He is Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, both[…]

Seeking a “penicillin moment” in cancer research through a radically new approach.

Question: What do you hope to accomplish rnby applying physicsrnto cancer research? 


PaulrnDavies: A couple of yearsrnago I had a call from the deputy director at the National Cancer rnInstitute,rnAnna Barker, with an amazing proposal. rnShe said "Well, we’re spending billions of dollars worth of rntaxpayer’srnmoney on the famous war on cancer and most of this is going to cancerrnbiologists, oncologists, geneticists following sort of the well trodden rnpathrnthat those very brilliant people have trodden and they’ve accumulated a rnvast,rnvast amount of information.Herernis a subject about which an enormous amount is known, but unfortunately rnveryrnlittle is understood." And so she had this very bold proposal that maybernphysicists and physical scientists generally, including mathematicians rnandrnchemists and so on might be able to lend a hand, not by giving the rncancerrnbiologists a new death ray, but by lending some of the concepts in, say,rnfundamental physics to the problem of cancer.  Physicistsrn think about the world in a very particular way.  Theyrn go about solving problems in arncertain manner.  The whole culturernof physics is really very different from that, biology, so maybe rnphysicistsrnhave got something to contribute. rnNow this is obviously a bold venture, but as a consequence of tworn orrnthree workshops exploring that possibility the National Cancer Instituternannounced about a year ago that they will be funding 12 centers around rntherncountry and Arizona State University has one and I’m principlerninvestigator.  There are about 12rnpeople on my team, a similar number in the other centers, and it is rnearly daysrnyet, but it’s an experimental as well as a theoretical program. 


Because I’m completely new to the field I’m having rnto learnrnvery fast.  My own contribution isrnin running workshops, brainstorming workshops questioning the hiddenrnassumptions that go into our current folklore understanding of cancer.  If you open a textbook or talk to anrnoncologist you will be taught all sorts of things about the nature of rncancer,rnstuff which may be true, but it may not be true, and it’s always good inrnscience to say "Well how do you know that?" and "Are you really sure?" rnand "Couldrnthere be an exceptional case?" And so my job really is, I call it rngrandly a "cancerrnforum."  I run a cancer forum inrnwhich I bring together from time to time about 20 people from different rndisciplinesrnand we’ll pick a particular subject. rnThe next one is applying evolutionary mathematics to cancer and rnwe’llrnfocus on that and we’ll really try and come up with a totally new way ofrnthinking and hopefully with a new research agenda.  It’srn all about coming up with new ideas, but we’ve got to bernable to test those ideas in the lab or at least with computational rnmodels tornsee if we can move forward, so what we’re aiming for is the big rnbreakthrough,rnthe penicillin moment, which cancer research has never had.  If you look at the mortality rate fromrncancer it has largely unchanged in 40 years whereas almost all other rndiseasesrnhave had enormous success and so there hasn’t been that really majorrnbreakthrough, that now we’ve nailed it type of moment where the cancer rncan berntackled to make a really dramatic difference in the mortality rate.  There are one or two cancers that havernbeen cleared up.  Childhoodrnleukemia, has been huge success there, but you know it’s odds and ends.  The overall picture of the majorrnkillers, breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, and so on, the rnstatisticsrnthere are really pretty dreadful and I think all of us working in this rnfieldrnfeel that if we can make a contribution by coming up with a genuinely rnnew idea,rntackle the problem in a completely different way, then this could be rnwhat wernhave really waited a long time for, which is that big breakthrough that rnisrngoing to maybe halve that mortality rate. rnThat’s my ambition.

Recorded April 15, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allen