ABOUT ONE WEEK FROM TODAY, I'll have some new published work in Johns Hopkins Magazine, regarding a physicist who practices cancer cell biology out of a chemical engineering department. Here is how the piece opens:
Galen of Pergamos was a physician with a practice in second-century Rome. Among his clientele was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen was also a prolific scribbler, so we know a lot about his ideas regarding disease, including his theory of cancer. Cancer, he wrote, was caused by "black bile" that flowed through the body; when it became trapped somewhere, it formed a malignant tumor.
He was wrong about black bile, though it is one hell of a good metaphor. But he was strikingly close to the mark with the flow theory. There are cancers, such as glioblastomas in the brain, in which the primary tumor can be deadly. But for most cancers, the original tumor does not pose the mortal peril. In more than 90 percent of cancers, what kills is metastasis. Cancer cells have a terrifying ability to move through the body and form new tumors in the bones, in the lymph nodes, in the lungs, in the liver and other internal organs. If a physician finds your tumor before the cancer has spread, you may survive. If the tumor has metastasized, cancer will probably kill you. Medicine still cannot do much to counter the flow of black bile.
What if that is, in part, because a substantial portion of cancer cell biology and cancer drug testing has been hindered by reliance on a ubiquitous piece of lab equipment?