Researchers have looked to alien life-forms for a potentially revolutionary new view of cancer.

A new theory of how cancer works has been developed by combining the worlds of astrobiology and oncology.

The theory suggests that cancer forms when recently evolved genes are damaged, and cells have to revert to using older, inappropriate genetic pathways.

Astrobiologists Dr Charley Lineweaver from The Australian National University and Professor Paul Davies from Arizona State University teamed up with oncologist Dr Mark Vincent from the University of Western Ontario to develop the new model.

“The rapid proliferation of cancer cells is an ancient, default capability that became regulated during the evolution of multicellularity about a billion years ago,” says Dr Lineweaver.

“Our model suggests that cancer progression is the accumulation of damage to the more recently acquired genes. Without the regulation of these recent genes, cell physiology reverts to earlier programs, such as unregulated cell proliferation.”

The researchers created this video to explain the genomic mechanisms and their relationship with cancer. 

As tens of millions of new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, the underlying cause of its many forms has not yet been identified.

Researchers are now looking for answers in the vast knowledge being revealed in the genome sequences of our distant relatives, including fish, corals and sponges.

New knowledge allows scientists to establish the order in which genes evolved and is the basis of the new therapeutic implications of the model, said Dr Lineweaver.

“The adaptive immune system that humans have has evolved relatively recently, and it seems cancer cells do not have the ability to talk to and be protected by it. The new therapeutic strategies we are proposing target these weaknesses,” he said.

“These strategies are very different from current therapies, which attack cancer’s strength – its ability to proliferate rapidly.”

But the new model will not provide an overnight cure.

“It is a work in progress but we think it gives a more consistent interpretation of what is currently known about cancer than other models do,” Professor Davies said.

Dr Lineweaver says that his research in astrobiology led him to look at cancer.

“Paul and I have always been interested in trying to answer big questions,” he said.

“This led us to astrobiology and trying to answer the question; ‘Are we alone?’

“To answer that, you need to know about how life got started and evolved on this planet, and that involves understanding the evolution of multicellularity.

“That is an obviously missing piece from our current models of cancer.”

The research is published in BioEssays. The video summary can be viewed below.