Microsoft researchers in Cambridge, England are proposing to “solve” the “cancer puzzle” in ten years.
How Will They Do It?
Treating cells as “programs” rather like software. The result will be turning cells into “living computers” that can be reprogrammed – to treat cancer or any other illness. Work has commenced on a Bio Model Analyzer, a computer model to simulate drug interactions. One of the architects of the model, Professor Jasmin Fisher at Cambridge, explained to the UK newspaper the Telegraph, “”If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved.” She continued, “I think for some of the cancers five years, but definitely within a decade. Then we will probably have a century free of cancer.”
Hope or Hype?
Very few cancer researchers believe cancer will “solved,” let alone “cured” in ten years. One reason is history. The war on cancer is over forty years old. The more you learn about cancer, the more complicated it appears. Lots of researchers recognize that “lung cancer” in any given individual may be six or ten separate tumor clones, and that the “cancer clones” are moving targets constantly learning from the environment – like how to evade anticancer drugs.
So first there is the issue of complexity. Can computer programs simulate life? Will they figure out the dozens of biological information systems that nobody has noticed yet and recognize what they’ll do? Do they understand how a cell works, hooked up to the ten trillion human and forty trillion bacterial and near endless viral particles that are part of its environment?
Don’t kid yourself. This is like teaching a kid five letters of the alphabet and asking him to explain the importance of Shakespeare.
So the hype factor here is, as Donald Trump might say, “huge.” No real surprise. This is a tech company we’re talking about. Microsoft can venture into biological realms without the worries or pained memories of pharmaceutical companies, who know how hard it is to manipulate biological processes even when you’ve got a really good idea of how they work.
Then there’s the next issue – does biology work purely like software? Do present computer models operate with the same constraints and redundancies that biology does, particularly when we don’t really know what goes on in cells millisecond by millisecond, they way we can with computer chips.
It may require whole new kinds of modeling to begin to comprehend these biological processes. Many will be informed by evolutionary models, which are being built into some of the new “machine learning” paradigms.
But cells may learn very differently from machines.
What’s the Positive?
There’s still terrific news in this development. Biology is finally getting its due as an “information science,” just as physics and chemistry have. Seeing the world as information, rather than as mass and energy, proteins and fats, lets you think much more effectively about how things actually happen. Seeing life as a form of “information processing” lets you put together all kinds of stuff people normally don’t.
Like looking at dozens of interacting variables simultaneously, something not even top chess players do as well as some computers. Like getting away from purely “tangible,” touchable means as the only way to perform medical diagnosis.
In the future, cancer may be announced less by tissue biopsy than by blood samples assayed for patterns of turned on genes. After all, we may be forming hundreds of cancers every day or week. The issue is which ones “jump the fence” and actually do something that might harm and kill us. As we’ve learned from prostate cancer, knowing you have “cancer” may produce more harm than good; in European trials, 50-100 people are treated unnecessarily for every person whose life is “saved.” Watchful waiting of prostate cancer is presently show the same mortality rate as immediate treatment via surgery and radiation. Plus knowing tumor cells are around through information methods may not require us to find and biopsy them, if we find a way to quickly destroy them.
Better, a view of cancer and biology in general as information, can open up new ways of looking at health and disease. The real trick is teaching the organism – that is, you – how to regenerate and regulate its information system to repel tumors before they start. It may be much more useful to teach your body what it needs to fight off cancer than to treat it.
Better yet, figuring out how biology works as an information issue should make it easier to create not just better computer programs but better computers. Biology no doubt uses varied systems of how information gets processed and used, very different from those of silicon chips and standard engineering.
Cancer is not close to licked. Much of what causes it is probably not yet on theoreticians’ radar screens. The information systems involved in human biology are a lot more complicated than Venn diagrams, and will not be quickly manipulable.
But an information view of cancer, and disease, will inform a much better way to tackle illness of all kinds. You’re information, folks. Get used to it, because that view can help you a lot. Even if the Microsoft researchers don’t solve cancer in ten years, at least they’re looking at the problem in a way that is solvable.