Cancer is a selfish gene

Lynne McTaggart

New evidence has emerged about the cooperative nature of genes in every cell that delivers a fatal blow to the ‘Selfish Gene’ theory.


New evidence has emerged about the cooperative nature of genes in every cell that delivers a fatal blow to the ‘Selfish Gene’ theory.

Researchers at Mount Sinai carried out experimental research and discovered that a healthy network of cells operates in cooperation, with the powerful tumor suppressor p 53 acting as the keeper of the peace, much like the queen bee in a hive.  It’s only when these enforcer genes are mutated that competition between cells arises, leading to illnesses.

 Dr. Thomas Swaka, MD, PhD the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine explained genetic signalling as, in effect, a ‘bond’. 

‘If a cell has lost a gene that fosters communication among cells,’ he said, ‘it may dominate other cells by ignoring signals to stop proliferating.  It also makes sense that the immune system might detect and attack cells that are not cooperating.  Failure to cooperate may also underlie development of birth defects.’

Far from being the norm, selfishness among genes is the pathology.

The selfish gene, in fact, is cancer.

‘Cells misbehave, they are unpredictable,’ said Swaka. ‘They do not operate like little machines.  What our study suggests is that cooperation is so central to our evolution that we have genetic mechanisms to protect us again cheating and dominating behavior.’

The researchers began their study after wondering how it was that cells that had lived singularly for hundreds of millions of years eventually began to form alliances to perform specific functions – in the human body, say – and what may have happened to the competitive behaviour seen in single cells such as amoeba. 

They discovered that three cells – the tumor suppressors, the ‘Top 1’, which controls the stability of genes and, ironically, the olfactory receptors involved in smell sensation, were the cell’s gatekeepers, whose job it was to maintain cooperation and help the cells to coordinate their activities. Nevertheless, when these genes were ‘knocked out,’ or silenced, the embryos still develop normally, possibly because other genes take over as the deputies of social enforcement.

But ultimately cooperation is the common currency; even mutant cells cooperate with other mutant cells. 

‘This study suggests that cell cooperation, altruistic behavior, cheating and other so-called social behaviours are wired into cells via the genome at the early primitive stage,’ says Zwaka. 

‘Darwin’s explanation of evolution as a struggle for existence needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of the importance of cooperation in the evolution of complexity.’

This is more proof of my own theory that we were born to connect. Everything, from subatomic particles to simple-celled organisms to the most distant stars in the galaxy, all are part of an indivisible Bond.

Despite our propensity for one-upsmanship and competition, our most basic urge always is to connect. Even our genes, like any ant colony, are born desperate to play as a team. 

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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