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I just finished reading Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, which I found more accessible than A Brief History of Time, written more than 30 years ago. Hawking’s abilities to explain the very (for me) abstract concepts of how no information can flow out of black holes and that the amount in there is somehow directly related to the cross sectional area of the hole was satisfying. As a very math challenged individual, I’m also a fan of Heisenberg and the perplexing issue that in the quantum/wave world of particle physics, you just can’t be certain about position and momentum. Yet, there are certain laws, like the speed of light, that are never violated, at least in the universe we live in.
So what does this have to do with genetics and prostate (or other) cancers? Here is a law: A always pairs with T, and C always pairs with G. In our biologic universe, without this law, no life as we know it could exist (prions may be an exception, but that gets too far into the definition of “life”). Yet, just as with the uncertainty of Heisenberg, the base pairing in DNA/RNA is not completely inviolable. Mistakes are made…and this can result in cancer. Cancer is a genetic disease and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I still recommend you avail yourself of the incredibly well written book, The Emperor of All Maladies. In the short time since that book was written, the explosion in our understanding of how genetic errors and cancer are related has been difficult to keep up with. The Cancer Genome Atlas (clever name, eh?) is but one example, and its use by scientists skilled in math (ugh) continues to help classify cancers based on how their mutations drive them rather than just how they look under the microscope or which organ they started in. Here is the math and the results one such analysis has on predicting survival for stomach cancer:
As you can see, the prognosis and potentially the treatment for one subtype of “stomach cancer” might be very different for one patient than for another. Bringing this technology to prostate cancer, we already know the mutational landscape is vast. For example, this article looked at 1,013 different prostate cancers and found 97 significantly mutated genes, including 70 not previously recognized, and many present in <3% of cases. There is hidden good news in this story, in that the same mutational uncertainties that can give rise to cancer (breaking the law of AT-CG) also allows our immune systems to react to the novel mutated proteins that cancers now display. For an interview from this week’s NEJM on gene editing, click here.
Keeping up with this world of laws, broken laws, and “black holes” will be a remarkable challenge for patients and oncologists alike. My final recommendation for reading about this is a terrific article you can find here by George Sledge, one of the outstanding leaders in our field. He notes that even the most skilled oncologist, paired with the smartest of patients, will be unable to keep up. But remember this, you can’t go faster than the speed of light. That’s the law!