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New Species May Evolve from Cancers (quantamagazine.org)
106 points by jessaustin 54 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

For the biologists out there: what parts of this theory are limited by actual phenomena? What parts just push the bounds of a mental model used by scientists to help understand biology? As a non-biologist, it's sometimes hard to know the difference.

Also, what are the arguments for not saying transmissible cancers are parasites?

It's helpful to see how there are fundamental precedents for externally mediated genomic change, which may then give rise to phenotypic ("what we see") or genomic ("the source code of what we see") differences:

Transposons or "jumping genes" [1] are segments of DNA code which can move around within a genome by themselves (autonomously).

Presumably though, over time, enough of these moving in the right place - in combination with some other mutation - might confer some benefit that leads to speciation [2].

edit: length / clarity

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transposable_element

[2] - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/wandering-fly-gen...

DNA is nothing like source code. Why do people keep repeating this analogy.

At any rate, cell differentiation/compartmentation within a tumor has been observed, so things do get blurry indeed. It's also worth noting that there isn't a single definition of 'species' and it's all just semantics that changes depending on your field. (The traditional 'inter-fertile over two generations' you learn in high school is helpful but doesn't stand up to many observations.) Ultimately a species is what biologists say is a species.

I'm not sure what triggered the association for me, but it reminded me of Peter Watts' The Things.


I remember in that short story The Thing begins to call humans "living cancer" because of how specialized human cells were to the point that cells in certain structures like the brain wouldn't be able to support themselves on their own.

Watts thought of everything first. Another comment here (for some reason, downvoted to oblivion) was reminded of Echopraxia.

Strange question, but at some point, could the self-sustaining cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks be considered a separate species?

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks

> Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951)[2] was an African-American woman[3] whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line[4] and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.[5]

It's important to remember this regarding Henrietta;

Neither her nor her family were ever compensated for the 'use' of her biological material nor was consent ever given for a donation. The medical-research community has profited incalculably from this.

She would have been treated better if she had recorded a song.

I think you make a lot of assumptions about what is considered ethical or obliged.

My point is that you need to defend your assumption that maintaining cultures of tissue samples requires consent and compensation. Concepts like intellectual property (copyright / patent / trademark) don't apply to things like tissue samples.

Technically there were neither ethical nor legal frameworks at the time. That isn't a statement of relativism but to point out there was no legal construct for it.

In my opinion using her treatment samples was grey to permissible (they already took them with permission and for a purpose serving her and it wasn't established as owned) but the deliberate morgue harvesting without permission crossed the line.

Just keeping the samples could be like keeping say a record size tumor a surgeon removed in a formaldehyde barrel is creepy but precedented and doesn't do harm. Doing it to a patient's body without permission or another valid overriding reason (say epidemiology or diagnosis to living patients infected with the same disease) is just descreation.


Does not make her treatment right. You must understand that the fundamental bioethical implications concerning consent in a medical setting are incredibly important. This conversation will only continue to become more relevant as biotechnology matures.

If the companies didn't profit from it, I'd fully agree with your statement.

What is wrong with taking profit from their work? All she had a resource she wouldn't have been able to create value from no matter how much time she had in life.

There are so many things wrong with the conclusion that whoever can make more value from something is entitled to take it, especially when we're talking about a human being.

I'll tone down the analogy so we don't go into abject examples that would still perfectly fit your point. You probably don't create that much value from your house, land, car, etc. But companies still aren't entitled to take them from you simply because they can make more money from them. If you are not willing to give them up for free you're contradicting your own point.

There's the mistaken impression that this is a 0 sum game and for companies to win, Henrietta Lacks and her family have to lose, it's expected of them. Or that the profits have to be exclusively on the company's side.

Privacy implications aside, we're actually not talking about a human being. We're talking about a(n) (abnormal) cluster of non-critical cells in a human. You and I shed millions of these (all-be-it normal) cells everyday, in the form of skin flakes and hair. Similar if your skin is pierced, causing a bleed. Semen if male, mucosal tissue if female (and possibly the egg), feces, urine, all contain human cells. This isn't robbery.

Nobody is arguing that skin-cells that they picked-up off the floor is the same ballpark as a tissue sample that was taken in a biopsy, studied, and profited from.

This wasn't accidentally obtained. They stole a winning lottery ticket and didn't share the winnings.

This is a very downplayed interpretation. During your whole life you will only use 2-3 of your sperm/egg cells "productively". The rest are literally thrown away, just like your shedding skin cells. Would you be OK with someone taking and using them for decades without you having a say?

There are 2 aspects here. One is about ethics and privacy, someone took and continues to use these cells with no restrictions, like saying it's OK to have a slave because it was legal when you bought it. What other things are perfectly normal to take because you have more?

The second is financial, you're expected to pay through your nose for using a 5s song snippet but use a piece of someone's body should only benefit the the ones who took it. Blood donors get paid and that's nowhere near as unique as this.

I've seen people rationalize the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (people get syphilis every day anyway). Were you in her place you'd expect more of everything. More rights, more respect, more privacy, more money, etc. And I don't see anyone trying to fix past mistakes.

In this case they weren't mutually exclusive, both the needs of the few and the many could've been met.

Sounds like you have a gripe with the entertainment industry, not with free knowledge and generosity of humanitarian donation. Come from a place of abundance, not scarcity. We all lose when we try to spite only because we have been spited.


I think they need a special environment?

So does every living thing on earth... HeLa cells are remarkably adapted to growing in biology labs, not sure how they'd fare outside...

Edit: it's been proposed as Helacyton gartleri, but not widely accepted because "Van Valen's argument of HeLa being a new species does not fulfill the criteria for an independent unicellular asexually reproducing species because of the notorious instability of HeLa's karyotype and their lack of a strict ancestral-descendant lineage."


Technically, all life does.

According to Wikipedia, the cells have a tendency to contaminate pretty much any suitable environment around and proliferate easily. Seems almost more like a fungal or bacterial growth than what we’d typically consider cancer.

Does it still contain all the information that makes Henrietta Henrietta? like face structure, hair colour etc?

Probably, but may have significantly mutated all over the place, corrupting that information. Additionally there are more stable chromosomes than in a normal human. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HeLa#Chromosome_number

> Some species also have complex features, such as cells organized into structures resembling muscles for movement, for example. She just doesn’t find it plausible that such complexity arose from a cancer.

Wouldn't that (theoretically) be be easier for cancer cells? The article doesn't state if these muscles came from "new" genes that were evolved for this or if they reactivated pre-existing genes from more complex ancestors, but the latter seems like a significantly smaller evolutionary leap than the former, and cancer cells would be in the unique position to be able to do that.

I had seen a lot of Myxozoa previously. I remember being thrilled when the origin of Myxosporeans were disclosed. It was a "in your face" moment. The cnidarian traits were clearly there for anybody to see it.

But I agree that many have just too complex life cycles to be a cancer. The idea of a microbe using a TASER like weapon is also really bizarre if we think about it. They are also too numerous to appear just by chance (again and again), and then evolve to attack seaworms, and later evolve again to invade fishe's hearts, muscles, gallbladders, gills... too much stable complexity for a cancer.

I know a few people that would argue that HeLa cells night as well be their own separate species after dealing with cell line contamination and all by HeLa cells, it's more in a joking sense afaik but there might be something to treating some of these cancer cell lineages as new species

I seem to remember there being an X-Files episode that presented this theory.

So they may not as well? Is this news?

Explains why that red lump on my back asked to borrow some cash.

Reminds me of Tasmanian devil with the transmissible face cancer




Parasitic transmissible cancers are very rare, because they generally lack the ability to adapt genetically, and get wiped out after a few thousand years, when all their accumulated mutations start to impact their survivability.

Isnt this a movie ?

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