Beyond the Somatic Mutation Theory of Cancer – Cancer 15

//Beyond the Somatic Mutation Theory of Cancer – Cancer 15

The problem lies not so much in developing new ideas, but in escaping from old ones” John Maynard Keynes

By 2009, it was clear that the somatic mutation theory (SMT) – that cancer was simply a random collection of genetic mutations – was leading exactly nowhere. Billions of research dollars and decades of work yielded virtually no useful treatments. So, in an uncharacteristically open-minded and insightful move, the government decided to do something very smart. It asked for help. But where to get that help? The National Cancer Institute (NCI) was already giving millions of research dollars to cancer biologists, cancer researchers, geneticists, physiologists, doctors etc. No, in a rare moment of clarity, the NCI decided that in order to think ‘outside the box’ you needed people who professionally live outside cancer’s box. Cancer researchers and doctors were so far in the box, they couldn’t see outside.

Instead, the NCI funded 12 Physical Science-Oncology Centers with $15 million each to look into the question of cancer’s origins and treatment, bringing physicists into the picture and not more and more of the same biologist/ researchers/ doctors. Rather than asking the same old questions and getting the same old answers, physicists would have an entirely new perspective on cancer, and perhaps this would help move cancer research in a newer, more productive direction.

Larry Nagahara, the NCI Program director for this initiative said astutely, “we actually want the [physicists] to ask the questions,” which will “vary greatly from those asked by biologists. A physicist may ask…‘what is the energy required for a cancer cell to metastasize?…What are the forces required for a cancer cell to move? Hopefully [this] will shed light on how cancer develops as a disease.”

Dr. Paul Davies was then a professor of physics at the University of Arizona. He had never looked into cancer before to this new assignment. He admits that prior to getting the call from the NCI, he had “no prior knowledge of cancer”, so he had the freedom to ask some basic questions. He writes, “What struck me from the outset is that something as pervasive and stubborn as cancer must be a deep part of the story of life itself. Sure enough, cancer is found in almost all multicellular organisms, suggesting its origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years.”

This is quite profound, and seems obvious to an outsider, but may not be to an insider with his/her ‘curse of knowledge’. Almost every known multicellular organism gets cancer. Almost every known cell type in the body (breast, lung, testicle, etc) can become cancerous. The origins of cancer did not lie in some random mutation making all these cells go berserk. The origins of cancer must lie in the origins of life itself.

Oncologists tend to view cancers as some kind of genetic mistake. Some mutations making cells go crazy and become cancer. But to Drs. Davies and Lineweaver, another cosmologist and astro-biologist, the behavior of cancer cells is any but berserk. Not at all. It is a highly organized, systemic method of survival. It’s no accident that cancer survives everything the body throws at it. It’s not a random collection of genetic mutations. Developing those specific attributes is as likely as throwing a pile of bricks into the air and having them land exactly as a house. Considering the body’s massive deployment of weaponery to kill cancer cells, it is impossible that cancer survives only as a freak accident. A freak accident that happens to every cell in the body, in every organism known to exist? If something seems ‘stupid’ but works (survives), then by its very definition, it’s not stupid. Yet cancer researchers and doctors had all treated cancer as some kind of random collection of stupid genetic mistake. No, there was stupidity going on, and it wasn’t the cancer’s.

Another great benefit of bringing in outsiders, especially physicists is that they bring a fundamentally different attitude to the cancer problem. Doctors and medical researchers always want ‘evidence’ to prove that something is true. That is, if cancer is due to smoking, then we must spend decades and millions of dollars to prove the smoking causes cancer. Each step along the way to the truth is paved with decades of bickering and demands to ‘see the evidence’.

That’s fine, but it’s not the way most physical science works. In theoretical physics, you have a theories, like Newton’s three laws. When you find an anomaly, like the wave-particle duality of light, then you must come up with a different theory to explain it. You may or may not be able to prove the existence of, say, Einstein’s gravity waves at the time. But if the theory explains the known facts and the anomalous findings better than the original theory, then it supplants it. Thus, Einstein was able to find support for his theories of relativity long before there was actual proof.

Physics embraces the anomaly, because it understands that it is only by explaining this anomaly that science move forward. The great American physicist Richard Feynman said “The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting; the part that doesn’t go according to what you expected”. Medicine, on the other hand, rejects new theories like a prom queen rejects pimple faced suitors. If ‘The Man’ says that calories cause obesity, then all other theories are shouted down. If ‘The Man’ says that cancer is caused by genetic mutations, then all other theories may apply elsewhere. They call this process ‘peer-review’, and glorify it as a religion. Galileo, for example, was not a fan of peer review by the church. In physics, your theory is only good if it explains the known observations. In medicine, your theory is only good if everybody else likes it, too. This explains the rapid pace of progress in the physical sciences and the glacial pace of medical research.

In medical research, we might have a hypothesis that dietary fat causes heart disease. This happened in the 1970s. Here we are in 2018, some 48 years later and we’re still debating the exact same issue. I work in nephrology (kidney disease) and I’m still prescribing the same medications and doing the same dialysis as when I went to medical school 20 years ago.

This was the precise point of bringing in an outside point of view. Physics moves in leaps and bounds. In quanta, if you will. A single correct theory, such as Einstein’s relativity or Neils Bohr’s quanta moves the entire field an incredible distance. Medical science, by contrast laboriously tries to move a single step at a time and tries to please all incumbent scientists through the tedious and stultifying process of peer review and trying to painfully prove every single step along the journey under the dictatorship of Evidence Based Medicine. In the field of obesity medicine, we still debate incessantly about calories, 100 years after it should have been settled. We still debate about – should we eat 3 meals a day or 1 meal or 6? Where physics moves at light speed, medicine moves on foot, taking 2 steps back for every one forward.

Even within medicine, cancer research is a disaster. Even though medicine moves slowly, there are occasional breakthroughs. So, for heart disease, you have new procedures, new technology (pacemakers etc.), new medicines and the death rate from heart disease, stroke and pneumonia have all fallen significantly in the last 60 years. Cancer? Not so much. Despite the world of technology moving on a MagLev bullet train, and the world of medicine moving at a crawl, cancer remains standing still. This, despite billions of research dollars every year, more ‘walks for cancer’ than you can count, more pink ribbons, more tear jerker stories on the mass media. Nobody wants to hear the truth, but here it is. The progress on cancer sucks. It really, really sucks.

Enter, the Disruptor. For the first time in 50 years, cancer medicine might get a breath of fresh air with the atavistic theories. Cancer was not a random collection of genetic mutations. Cancer was a targeted de-evolution to a more primitive form of life. The origins of cancer are the origins of life itself.

(Note for regular readers. I’m sorry because I have more to say about cancer, but I will take a break from the Cancer series for now, because of competing real life priorities (how rude!), and the upcoming release of The Diabetes Code)

2018-02-27T11:34:20+00:00 14 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Fung is a Toronto based kidney specialist, having graduated from the University of Toronto and finishing his medical specialty at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001. He is the author of the bestsellers ‘The Obesity Code’ and ‘The Complete Guide to Fasting’. He has pioneered the use of therapeutic fasting for weight loss and type 2 diabetes reversal in his IDM clinic.

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14 Comments on "Beyond the Somatic Mutation Theory of Cancer – Cancer 15"

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Great article, but the key difference between medicine and science is the billions of dollars of profits that the pharmaceutical and medical companies rake in from willing and unwilling consumers; which I’d argue greatly impedes any real progress. Medical care in the western world is essentially a self-licking ice cream cone.


Thanks for this series on cancer. I look forward to every post. I preordered ‘The Diabetes Code’. I can think of plenty of people that need to read it. Thanks for what you.


Your first two books are both brillant – cannot wait until the third is out.

Stephen T

It looks like we should have put the physicists in charge years ago. I don’t think they could have done a worse job and they might have struggled to waste such stupendous amounts of research money.

The problem now is all the vested interests that have piled in behind the current failed cancer theory. It’s marvellous for pharmaceuticals! Diabetes is even better if you have shares in junk food and pharma.

Roger Bird

One doesn’t have to be a physicist to out pace conventional medicine. Just ordinary folks willing to think for themselves outside of the medical echo chamber can easily out pace the doctors.


No!!! no break this is an awesome series Dr Fung!! recommend all of Dr Fung’s books because of his unique writing style and brilliant explanation of complex science that is user friendly

This has been an interesting read. I’m curious as to what you think about those of us who have Lynch Syndrome, who are told that because of genetics, there’s not much we can do–we will get cancer. After I had colon and bilateral kidney ca (now free, still have both kidneys) I found you while looking for something I could at least do to prevent–the answer was fasting. I’ve been a disciple since last summer and it has dramatically changed my health and outlook on life. Keep up the good work, but seriously would love to see some posts about… Read more »
Roger Bird

You don’t have to be a physicist to out pace the medical profession. All it takes is a persistent willingness to look outside of the medical echo chamber and think for one’s self.

I’ve been enjoying this series on cancer immensely and are looking forward to the conclusion. I can however be a bit frustrated with doctors and their obsessive need to explain every tiny detail, but I guess it needs to be that way to reach acceptance “within the ranks” To me it’s pretty clear what cancer is, and I don’t need to know the cancer cells metabolism or DNA in detail to figure that out. Just like I don’t need to know exactly how a car works to have an idea about its function. Cancer is our active defense against invasive… Read more »
Emilia Andersson

Thank you for this very interesting and refreshing read, I’ve been looking forward to every new blog and hope you’ll be back with more food for thoughts soon.


Actually, one has to wonder if so called cancer (or rampant disorderly growth etc) is the norm (so to speak)…whereas ordered and differentiated systems are the exception. However, from our limited perspective we assume the opposite. The philosophical and theological implications are far reaching.


in other words what has “tamed” this wildness and chaos into a fairly predictable order……what makes complex non linear systems actually work? One answer is survival over time (ie exposure to trillions, if not more, stressors) with adaptation.

Fasting may be a way to reclaim certain dormant “programs” that affect this process in a positive way. Interfering in complex non linear systems with whacka mole micro interventions is likely to fail……

Martin Williams

Thank you for making The Obesity Code, and its life-saving message, universally available for diabetics of all incomes. As I write, it’s £14.36 for the KINDLE version in Britain. Thank God it wasn’t issued as a hardback.


That’s okay, Dr. Fung…because we love everything you talk about. But, yes…please go back to writing about cancer soon!