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An Evolutionary Portrait of Cancer - A very special talk with Professor Sir Melvyn Greaves

Once upon a time, around 700 million years ago, complex, multi-cellular animals evolved. This required a social contract for cellular co-operation that included restraints on a three billion year old capacity and drive for cells to proliferate selfishly. Cancer cells are mutant cheaters in this ancient contract pursuing their own fitness within the body’s habitats at the expense of the well-being of the whole organism. But why is it ‘allowed’ to happen? And why so frequently? And why in children? Google it. It’s fate or bad luck. It’s stress. It’s the bad genes your parents gave you. It’s power lines. It’s somebody’s fault. Or, it’s your fault, stupid. These blame games, scare stories and conspiracy theories are bogus. The answers lay in the evolutionary process itself, the inevitability of natural selection and its risky trade-offs coupled with the mismatch between our evolutionary heritage and contemporary lifestyles. The good news is that it’s fixable.

Professor Mel Greaves is a biologist and Director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at The Institute of Cancer Research, London. His primary research focus is understanding the cause of childhood leukaemia.


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