Tag Archives: DNA

“Like fingerprints at a crime scene” – latest cancer research is amazing

Hidden away behind recent media stories about Ukraine, parties, the cost of living and Covid was the announcement of one of the most significant medical breakthroughs for a very long time. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have used DNA data from 12,222 NHS cancer patients to identify “mutational signatures”, a kind of personal record of the causes of each patient’s cancer.

The study of DNA has come a long way. February 28th, 2023, will mark seventy years since Francis Crick burst into The Eagle pub in Bene’t Street, Cambridge, and announced to its patrons – many from the Cavendish Laboratory where he worked with James Watson – that the pair had discovered “the secret of life”. Their discovery of the double helix, deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, had been completed that very morning and its applications have changed the world. I had many a fine pub lunch and pint of real ale in The Eagle during the time I worked at an ad. agency in Cambridge, and occasionally in the years following, but nothing so dramatic ever happened while I was supping my beer!

One of the secrets of this new study’s success seems to have been the sheer number of whole-genome-sequenced cancers that were investigated, significantly more than in previous similar studies. The scientists identified patterns in the DNA of specific cancers, common characteristics which provide them with a complete picture of the mutations which have taken place and contributed to the production of particular cancers.

These “mutational signatures” give insights into whether environmental factors such as smoking or UV light, have triggered the mutations which caused the cancer or whether its appearance is purely a result of internal factors. The method lays out a personal record of the damage suffered by the body and the repairs it has made.

So researchers are now able to understand the underlying mutations generated by different kinds of cancers and the way they operate in the body. Utilising a digital tool called FitMS (the Signature Fit Multi-Step algorithm), they identified 58 new mutational signatures. Such signatures can be compared with existing data to isolate specific characteristics and look for commonalities and differences.

The main author of the study, Professor Serena Nik-Zainal from Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) and the University of Cambridge, has described these signatures as being “like fingerprints at a crime scene”. Knowing how cancers exhibiting such mutation patterns have been treated previously – and what results have been achieved – will help the scientists build an increasingly detailed picture of the causes of more and more cancers and what drugs or other interventions should be used.

My guess is that this research will lead to a rapid increase in the development of new cancer treatments. Just like the time when Francis Crick piled into The Eagle, so another door has been opened into a new era of scientific analysis and understanding.

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Apollo XI and the physics of God

Forty-five years ago this month, Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the most unforgettable words ever spoken, as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module and became the first human being to set foot on the Moon.

As he said, it was “… one small step for a man”; though in fact, of course, many thousands, if not millions, of steps had already been taken in the long and winding road that led to Apollo XI‘s landing. So many technological achievements, arguably dating back to the invention of the wheel and beyond, had fuelled that jaw-dropping expedition.

On the one hand, as Armstrong put it, it was as though our species had taken a “giant leap” in its evolutionary journey; on the other hand, the landing can be characterised as simply the product of the cold, level headed application of scientific knowledge, technological advances and computer power.

As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the part played by God in all of this. When John F. Kennedy made his “We choose to go to the moon” speech, he was careful to ask for God’s blessing for the “adventure”. And when the Apollo VIII astronauts entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1968, they took turns in reading from the book of Genesis.

It seems to me that these statements of faith were probably a lot to do with pandering to assumed public sentiment in the US. (buzz_aldrin_EVA_selfieThough not entirely: it’s interesting that Buzz Aldrin‘s personal communion service on the surface of the Moon was held in secret – see Buzz Aldrin selfie, right, taken during his EVA). But having in mind the experiences of Galileo, Darwin and others throughout history who’d made giant leaps previously, the finance department at NASA knew that offending religious sensibilities via revolutionary discoveries would not necessarily stimulate increased budgets for future missions.

Nonetheless … with all the analytical and computational power at their disposal, I’m surprised that true believers at NASA and other scientific bodies have never sought to establish the physical nature of God. If they’re as convinced of his existence as the statements of the astronauts and certain space scientists suggest, it would surely be worthwhile undertaking some kind of work to buttress their belief with empirical evidence? To my mind, there is a very curious contradiction in the way they can spend so much of their lives rigorously searching after solutions to the most difficult problems in physics, harnessing cutting edge knowledge and equipment to chase down fine details which may produce further giant leaps, whilst at the same time blocking out of their mind any thoughts of questioning the nature of this supposed all-powerful, all-seeing super being.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an extensive body of scientific, metaphysical and/or philosophical literature exploring ideas around the physics of God. For instance, James Redford, in his 2012 book The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything, available via links here, seeks to use theories about the ultimate collapse of the universe into a final cosmological singularity – the “Omega Point” – as a proof for the existence of God.

Rather than try to explain the origins of the Big Bang, of which “The Omega Point is a different aspect”, Redford places his trust in a projection of generally-accepted quantum gravity theory into the most distant imaginable future, to describe God as a state of being which will come about following the development of infinite computational resources. (So for “God”, read “Science”; or “If you can’t beat them, join them”). We can all take comfort in knowing that scientists will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of the “multiverse”; but, with a nagging worry that, as the state of singularity approaches, scientists may have other things on their minds than increasing computer power (and also that scientific theories themselves evolve), I find very little of value here.

Darwin's_finchesThe truth of the matter is that, just like Darwin’s finches, religious beliefs tend to be modified to respond to changes in their habitat. With each new “giant leap” made by Man, some of the bonds that hold together the DNA of religious beliefs are broken and re-form to adapt to the changing climate of opinion and the social and scientific environment.

For absolutely explicable reasons, many people (some astronauts included) need to hold onto a religious belief as they take their all-too-short, wondrous, worrying ride on and around this planet, as it processes through the inexplicable heavens.

To that extent, the scientific basis for the existence of God is to be found not in physics, but in psychology.

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