Cancer’s Seed and Soil – Cancer 11

//Cancer’s Seed and Soil – Cancer 11

For 50 years, cancer was considered to be caused primarily by genetic mutations. This line of thinking got us almost exactly nowhere. As the research began to repudiate the main tenets of the Somatic Mutation Theory (SMT) of Cancer, competing hypotheses gained attention. The SMT’s main premise was that cancer is derived from a single somatic cells that has accumulated a bunch of genetic mutations that allow it to become immortal. The main cancer causing genes are termed onco-genes and tumor suppressor genes.

This is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. What does this mean? Well, imagine yourself stuck in the middle of a forest. All you see are trees. It doesn’t seem so great. It’s just a bunch of trees like you find in your backyard. Here’s a tree. Here’s another tree. Here’s a third tree. What’s the big deal? But, if you could see the Amazon rainforest from a helicopter, you could then appreciate the beauty of the entire forest.

The same problem happens if you read too close. Imagine that you are reading this blog post but have mistakenly zoomed in by 700%. You can’t see more than a few letters. Can’t see much. Gibberish. By looking too closely, you have missed the entire point of the passage. You need to ‘zoom out’. Imagine there are 3 blind men examining an elephant. The first, examining the trunk, says the elephant is long and limber. The second, examining the tail, says it is small and swishes around. The third, examining the body says it’s huge and flat. All three are simultaneously correct and incorrect, because they have ‘zoomed in’ too closely.

The same problem exists in the SMT. We’ve zoomed into cancer too closely – right down to the genetic makeup of the cancer and it is gibberish. We can make no head or tail of cancer’s origin and therefore make no progress towards treatment. Over 100 oncogenes and over 15 tumor suppressor genes have been identified, but we don’t know what it all means as a whole. Instead of three blind men and an elephant, we have thousands of blind researchers and cancer. Each sees a tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle and can’t see the whole. The rate of mutation necessary to develop a cancer is far, far more than the known rate of mutation in human cells (Loeb et al 2001). Normal cells just don’t mutate anywhere close to what is  needed to produce cancer. Further, while every cancer has mutations, it was not known what the ‘denominator’ was. That is, how many cells had mutations but no cancer. This turned out to be pretty high. You could alter 4% of the genome and still have a cell that looked and acted completely normally. This is a remarkable high degree of tolerance (Humpherys 2002)

We need to zoom out and look at cancer from a different perspective. The SMT looked at cancer at a microscopic genetic level. The Tissue Organization Field Theory (TOFT) begins to correct the problem by looking at the tissues surrounding the cancer. In multicellular organisms, single cells do not have an existence outside of the whole organism. The liver, for example, could not exist outside of the body. We don’t walk down the street and say hi to the next door neighbor’s liver out walking the dog. You don’t see your spouse’s lung jumping out of the body at night to rummage around the refrigerator. You don’t yell at your spouse’s kidney to put the toilet seat down.

All cells originate from a single fertilized egg, so all cells in the body, including all the different organs share the same genes and DNA. The original undifferentiated stem cells have the ability to become any part of the body – lung, liver, heart etc. It is therefore, not the genes that determine if a cell becomes a liver or a lung, it is the signals received from the surrounding tissues that tell an undifferentiated cell to become a liver cell. There is detailed hormonal signalling involved in this process.

For every problem, including cancer problems may develop in one of two places. There may be a problem with the cell itself – it mutated and became a cancer. Or, it may the environment it grows in that may be telling that cell to become cancerous. Is it the seed or is it the soil or both? If you drop a grass seed in the desert – it does not grow. But drop that same grass seed into your lawn – it may grow extremely well. But it is the exact same seed with exactly the same genes. Focusing exclusively on the seeds means we missed the forest for the trees. Myopically researching the genetic difference of seeds to see why one grows and the other does not is futile.  

By the same token, a cancer cell may grow very well in the normal environment of growth pathways. But that same cancer cell may not grow at all in the ‘desert’ where growth pathways have been entirely shut off. The key is to shut off these pathways. How to do that (previously discussed here)? Well growth pathways are closely linked to the body’s nutrient sensors. If the body sees that there are no nutrients, then it will shut down all cells to go into a quiescent state, just as baker’s yeast will become dormant without water. The reason is self preservation. In this dormant state, it can live essentially forever.

This understanding of the importance of the ‘seed and the soil’ concept helps to answer one of cancer’s most interesting questions. Why can virtually every cell in the body become cancerous? Think about this – there is cancers of the lung, breast, stomach, colon, testicles, uterus, cervix, blood cells, heart, liver, even fetuses. The ability to become cancerous is an INNATE ability of every cell of the body, almost without exception. Sure some cells become cancer more frequently than others. The oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes discovered so laboriously over the last quarter century are mutations of NORMAL genes. The seed of cancer lies in every single one of our cells. So we must pay more attention to the ‘soil’ because that is what likely makes the difference between having cancer and being healthy.

The question is why? Why should any cell turn into cancer? Why shouldn’t all cells turn into cancer? The origins of cancer lie in our own cells. The capacity to turn into cancer lies in the normal pathways of growth that become somehow perverted – by the environment it lives – the ‘soil’. If you bathe lung cells in cigarette smoke, it will more likely turn into cancer. If you infect cervical cells with Human Papilloma Virus, it will more likely turn into cancer. If you give asbestos to the lung lining (pleura), it will more likely turn into cancer. If you are obese, breast cells will more likely turn into cancer. The question of what is the common linkage of all these stimuli?

The SMT assumes that the default state of cell proliferation in humans is quiescence. The liver cell, for example, won’t grow unless it receives growth signals to tell it to grow. Therefore the assumed problem in liver cancer is that the ‘seed’ is bad. But it could just as easily be the ‘soil’ or the environment surrounding the liver that the will tell it to grow or not.

On the other hand, single celled organisms are assumed to have a default state of growth. That is, cells grow all the time unless they are constrained by not having enough nutrients. Put a bacteria in a Petri dish and it will keep growing until it runs out of food. From an evolutionary perspective, since we evolved from single celled organism, it would only make sense that all our cells retain this INNATE ability to grow. For example, the replication machinery of yeast and human cells is almost completely homologous. So, if you simply find the right ‘soil’ any cell may return to its original state of growth. Unregulated, this is almost the very definition of cancer.

The same issue exists for motility. Liver cells, for example, don’t move around our body at will. But for unicellular organisms, this is the natural state of things. Yeast will move around constantly. Bacteria are constantly moving. This has enormous implications for why cancers spread (metastasize), which is 90% of the reason people die of cancer. Metstasis, or movement of cells, is an INNATE feature of life on earth.

Cancer exists at many levels. If we dig too deeply into the genetic level, we miss entirely that the way that cells are organized plays a huge role in cancer’s development. If we look too closely at the trees, we miss the forest. If we look too closely at the genetic level, we miss the tissue organization level problems – the growth signals, the nutrient sensors, the hormonal signalling. Cancer cells do not grow faster than normal cells. It’s just that normal cells don’t normally grow. Also the growth of cancers are not autonomous. Breast cancer cells, for example will still respond to hormone changes like estrogen.

Gleevec, the very poster child of recent cancer breakthroughs illustrates that we have been digging too deeply. Recall that Gleevec, imatinib, is a drug that blocks tyrosine kinase, a growth signal for cells. It can cure many patients from chronic myelogenous leukemia, a disease that is caused by a genetic distortion, the Philadelphia chromosome. But here’s the crucial part. Gleevec does not affect the genetics of the cells. It affects the growth signalling pathways – the SOIL, not the SEED. In doing so, it sometimes so completely cures the cancer that the genetic aberrations disappear.

Gleevec, the most successful cancer treatment of the last 50 years, is proof that we had been diving too deeply into the minutiae of the genetic problems and failed to consider the cancer’s hormonal environment. This is an example of so called ‘preposterous reductionism’ (Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea). “If you want to know why traffic jams tend to happen at a certain hour every day, you will still be baffled after you have painstakenly reconstructed the steering, braking and accelerating processes of the thousands of drivers whose various trajectories have summed to create those traffic jams.”

If you want to know why cancer happens, you will still be baffled after you have painstakenly reconstructed the oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes and other processes of the thousands of cells whose various trajectories have summed to create cancer. This is exactly the track we have taken with almost all of modern cancer research, and we wonder why we’ve made no progress. After billions of research dollars and decades of time, The Cancer Genome Atlas is the cancer equivalent of reconstruction steering patterns of thousands of cars to see figure out rush hour traffic.

Zoom out. Look at the proper level (tissue level, not genetic level). Consider cancer’s soil, not only its seed. This does not invalidate any of the advances of genetics. The changes merely occur at different levels. The SMT looks at cancer at a cell based level, and tissue organization theory looks at the ‘society of cells’ level. But understand that one does not preclude the other.


Start here with Cancer Part 1

Continue to Cancer Part 12 – Hallmarks of Cancer

2018-04-25T16:59:36+00:00 23 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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23 Comments on "Cancer’s Seed and Soil – Cancer 11"

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THANK YOU!!!!! I’ve been (practically) screaming this to my oncologist after reading ‘The Metabolic Approach to Cancer’ by Dr. Nasha Winters ( which primarily speaks of TERRAIN. I’ve been fasting, watching my IGF, inflammation markers, estrogen levels, etc., much to the disapproval of my oncologist; though he is humoring me by ‘allowing’ me the labs. My Stage IV Breast Cancer went into spontaneous remission with an Aromatase Inhibitor, removal of my ovaries, starting Metformin, and fasting; he recommended Chemo then a CDK4/6 Inhibitor. I declined chemo (it didn’t work for me with my first diagnosis so why now). The CDK4/6… Read more »
Mary White

Good for you Lisa! Use what works. Be healthier, and stay that way.
But of course this doesn’t “work” well for Big Pharma and doctors who believe that only their pills and “treatments” will keep us alive.
Sometimes we just have to do what works for us and ignore promises of “we know better than you what you need”.

By coincidence I found out about Dr Winters only yesterday after listening to a podcast with Rob Wolff. I was looking at her website and there is a questionnaire in her book (that predicts your cancer terrain) . One of questions was whether you catch many colds/viruses or whether you don’t, with the assumption that both ends of the spectrum can be indicative of a problem. Does anyone know why the latter would be a problem? Since losing weight, cutting junk and going LC I dont get colds or viruses anymore, ever. I searched Google and all I could find… Read more »

Ask her directly. Think it’s something to do with a low/poor immune system not being able to fight an intruder.


“growth pathways are closely linked to the body’s nutrient sensors”

So fasting could inhibit growth pathways by inhibiting nutrient sensors. Are there clinical studies of fasting vs. chemo vs nothing? Or is there too little financial incentive for testing free treatments?


Dr. Valter Longo of USC has done some rodent and human studies.


yes, there is. Read this book: The Longevity Diet. Valter Longo shows is very well.


This is a great summary of studies into how fasting and low carb diets can help cancer treatment:


Another fantastic post – thank you, Jason,


Very thought provoking. Can’t wait for the next post in this sequence.

Rich Schnoor

This soil idea sorta follows along what I have read/heard that if you somehow eliminate all sugars from your diet you can kill/prevent cancer

Katrina M Iannuzzi

Excellent! !!!!!!!!!


Thanks, Dr. Fung for such a great article. I am sure you have read about the work of Dr. Thomas Seyfried, who is exactly along the same lines that cancer is not based on a genetic level but on a metabolic level proven by work he has done plus the research work of other scientist he cites. Thomas N. Seyfried received his Ph.D. in Genetics and Biochemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana


I know Dr. Fung hardly EVER answers questions in comments BUT would a demethylation drug be included in what you’re talking about here? Something like Azacytidine (Vidaza®) for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS)? AND, would the MTHFR mutation have anything to do with why this would work for MDS? I know having spina bifida occulta might mean you have the MTHFR mutation. I have a lot of questions and can’t find the answers but it seems there might be a connection to all of this.


brilliant. The scope of genetic research done as cancer research is disturbing. Much of that research has little to do with curing cancer. Dr. Fung probably saved my life.

Dr. Fung, I find this a good attempt at figuring out the puzzle. About 10 years ago, I switched from the 7 mutation theory, to that of stem cells giving a benign tumor cell a growth signal, as it would for the healing of an injury process. About 2 years later I modified it to be in the creation of pluripotent cells from a tumor cell. Then 2 years ago I came across a seminal article demonstration that a macrophage performing its clean-up process duty would un-fortuitously swap the genes (or turn them on) giving it properties of the M2… Read more »

Excellent article! This makes so much sense, thank you.


Great way of looking at the puzzle of cancer, and lack of progress…look forward to the continuation of the information.

Archie Tucker
Dr. Fung, First, let me tell you how much I respect you and appreciate the free education you so graciously provide for us. I am a type II diabetic who is being healed because of the information you freely provide as well as your book I bought. I am so thankful that I have found this site. It is so full of good and useful information. Having said that, I would like to bring your attention to some proofing issues. I know you are a busy person and, as with me, sometimes do not allow enough time for proofing. So,… Read more »
William Justice

Wow , I love your blogs. Not only are they informative, and accurate, they are also written in away that effectively communicates with a wide range of readers. This is very refreshing, but still retains the meaning. Your site on average has really come alive in the past several months. Thank You for your integrity and for all the knowledge and help you are offering to so many. You are a great example of what a life really means ! If only more people were ready and willing to receive the gift. Truly amazing work by all involved!

Jan Hendl

Simply stunning.


And your main point is what? that insulin is the catalyst or soil or something that , when taken too often or too much might cause cancer? Or only to look at forest and not trees?


What about mouses hwo eat gmo food? They all get cancer?