Aktipis’ “The Cheating Cell” Explores Cancer through Evolution

Cancer is often a difficult topic of discussion, especially in the Greek community where it is still sometimes mentioned in a whisper or with euphemisms, but there is hardly a family today that has not been touched by the disease. In 2020, cancer was the number two killer of Americans, accounting for 18% of all deaths, wedged between heart disease, the top killer once again at 20%, and COVID-19 which accounted for more than 10% of deaths in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer by Athena Aktipis explores this serious topic and offers insights and hope for the future. As noted in the book’s description, when we think of the forces driving cancer, we don’t necessarily think of evolution. But evolution and cancer are closely linked because the historical processes that created life also created cancer.

The Cheating Cell delves into this extraordinary relationship, and shows that by understanding cancer’s evolutionary origins, researchers can come up with more effective, revolutionary treatments.

Aktipis, who is of Greek descent on her father’s side, studies cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer. A cooperation theorist, an evolutionary biologist, an evolutionary psychologist, and a cancer biologist who works at the intersection of those fields, she co-founded the International Society for Evolution, Ecology and Cancer and is also the Director of Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative at Arizona State University where she is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. Aktipis is also the co-Director of The Human Generosity Project. When she is not researching cooperation and cheating across systems, she is working on understanding the science behind zombification (when one organism hijacks another). In this capacity, she is the chair of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, host of the Zombified Podcast, and the producer of Channel Zed.

In her book, Aktipis goes back billions of years to explore when unicellular forms became multicellular organisms. Within these bodies of cooperating cells, cheating ones arose, overusing resources and replicating out of control, giving rise to cancer. Aktipis illustrates how evolution has paved the way for cancer’s ubiquity, and why it will exist as long as multicellular life does. Even so, she argues, this does not mean we should give up on treating cancer, in fact, evolutionary approaches offer new and promising options for the disease’s prevention and treatments that aim at long-term management rather than simple eradication.

Looking across species, from sponges and cacti to dogs and elephants, we are discovering new mechanisms of tumor suppression and the many ways that multicellular life-forms have evolved to keep cancer under control. By accepting that cancer is a part of our biological past, present, and future, and that we cannot win a war against evolution, treatments can become smarter, more strategic, and more humane.

Unifying the latest research from biology, ecology, medicine, and social science, The Cheating Cell challenges us to rethink cancer’s fundamental nature and our relationship to it.

The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer by Athena Aktipis, published in March 2020 by Princeton University Press, is available online and in bookstores. Follow on Twitter @AthenaAktipis.


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