Tuesday, 21 August 2012

All the same at Heart

Two weeks ago now, I was talking to someone about the sort of work I do (when I’m playing at being a scientist) and she mentioned that she knew someone else who studied rat hearts. She said she thought this was very odd, as surely there can’t be much in common between the heart of a rat and a human heart, so what could there be to learn? I was quite pleased with the response I was able to give so I wanted to put it up here too. 
Not so different really. Sarah Palin helps to demonstrate that we're not actually so different from any other animals. (Images from Therealbs2002 and feastoffun.com)
It’s quite a common misconception that the biology of a human is very different from the biology of any other animals. What can we ever hope to learn from them that would be any good to us? The classic example of this comes from Sarah Palin – that fount of well-informed scientific knowledge – who famously commented that ‘[Tax] dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.’ I was also reminded of this by the recent story about scientists making a ‘jellyfish’ out of rat heart cells. This sounds like a bit of fun but may actually come to revolutionise heart transplant procedures by allowing us to grow operational heart muscle from just a few cells. More on that later.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The big cure for the big ‘C’

This time I'm not going to make any promises. I'm going to try and keep this place going better than I have done but I may get distracted again. There's a lot of fun stuff ahead, but it should mean you'll get to see me cropping up in other places very soon. In other news, if you didn't see it, I got a post on the Nature.com network on Monday which I'm very excited about. It's on the theme of new beginnings and organising my first conference.

I'd also like to say a quick hello to some of my readers that I've had the good fortune to meet around Cambridge since I last posted anything. I'm always surprised that people have actually heard of my ramblings and am glad that I'm not talking to myself here (although after so much inactivity that may have changed :S )

Anyway, people are always asking me if I've cured cancer yet. This is one of the things that my lab and many others are working towards, in a roundabout sense. But it seems likely that there will never be one cure for all cancer and here's why:

At the risk of being cliché, given all the recent media activity (which I have spectacularly missed the opportunity to write about), finding the ‘cure for cancer’ is to biology what the Higgs Boson was to particle physics. Everyone’s working on it and it means a lot – not just to our understanding of the universe, but to human healthcare – and it may not even exist.

People like to think there can be a simple pill that will fix any problem in life from cancer to cellulite, obesity to osteoarthritis (source).

It’s very nice and easy to think of one simple, easy to administer cure – this is the ultimate dream for many illnesses – but most diseases just aren’t that simple, in particular a ‘cure for cancer’ is a very misleading concept.  It suggests that cancer is one illness that is the same every time it occurs and therefore should have the same solution each time. Actually, there are probably as many cancers as there are people with cancer, with each one unique and different to any other, to some extent.