Friday, September 05, 2008

Like Philosopher Whitehead, Cancer Researchers Seek Simplicity--and Mistrust It

Three new cancer studies reported today in the journals Science and Nature offer contemporary examples to validate the wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead's oft-repeated advice that we should seek simplicity--and mistrust it.

The studies portray a surprising and fascinating mixture of good news and bad.

On the downside, the studies find that the 30-year quest to trace specific cancers to a malfunctioning gene or two is much too simple and can never be achieved: after examining 20,000 genes in tumors from 24 pancreatic cancer patients and 22 brain tumor patients, researchers were amazed at the unique complexity of each individual cancer.

No two tumors were exactly the same. Individual tumors were found to require a different domino effect of genetic changes, and genes blamed for the same kind of tumor were different from one patient to the next. For example, Johns Hopkins researchers reported in Science that a typical pancreatic cancer contained 63 genetic alterations and a typical brain cancer had 60.

Not only did the genetic maps include mutated genes. There were also missing genes, extra genes, overactive genes and underactive genes.

If these were the only results, the findings would suggest that the relative simplicity of looking for a bad gene or two had hit a wall of unsortable, unpredictable complexity. Fortunately, there was also good news, and it may well outweigh the bad.

The upside of the research was that by providing a description of how cancer develops that is more accurate, it identified a more elegant simplicity that is actually very promising.

The researchers found that despite the wide variety genetic alterations and the apparent randomness in the way they cascade to turn normal cells cancerous, "clusters of seemingly disparate genes all work along the same pathways. So instead of today's hunt for drugs that target a single gene, the idea is to target entire pathways that most patients share."

Kenneth Kinzler, the Johns Hopkins doctor who lead the pancreas research, said if scientists can identify which genes cluster in which pathways, "a simpler picture emerges." The hope is that if pathway blockers can be found, they may help patients with many different kinds of cancer.

These developments are perfectly in line with Whitehead's model of creative advance, in which old simplicities are shattered repeatedly by new complexities. But once the new complexity is experienced more generally and described more accurately, a simplicity that is truer to reality does emerge.

This phenomenon is one exemplification of Whitehead's ultimate metaphysical principle: "The many become one, and are increased by one."

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