A science presenter, writer, speaker & former TV host; author of The Skeptic's Handbook (over 200,000 copies distributed & available in 15 languages).


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Cure cancer with weaponized bacteria that do mass “suicide bombing” at the right site?

Bacteria multiply

In the West we could try to cure cancer faster with research like this, or we could pour billions into making expensive electricity to try to cool the world by 0.01°C for our grandchildren.  Hmm. What to do? Which activity is more likely to make citizens richer, happier and more productive?

In this approach (below) bacteria are engineered to find cancer cells, make lots of baby bacteria until they reach a large enough colony size then do a mass self-destructo at the cancer site — releasing a tumor killing drug. A few bacteria survive the micro-apocalypse and they start another round. So far, the researchers haven’t cured any cancers, but they can shrink cancers in mice and extend mousy lives by 50%. One day this might mean cancers can be “lived with”, if not actually destroyed completely.

A critical mass is reached and the colony “bombs”.

So the bacteria can be engineered into neat little machines to manage cancer. But they are still living creatures, so are messy machines. One problem is that evolution tends to make all living machines chuck out bits of DNA that don’t improve survival, so the “survivors” will gradually take over, [...]

Skin cells turned into cancer hunters: Let’s do less politically correct science and more real stuff

Why are we still wasting money trying to change the weather?

We’ve cracked the code to program biology and there are so many better things we can do. We can read the four letter alphabet, and now we’re in the early days of unpacking the operating systems. One team (below) has just reprogrammed skin cells to hunt down one particular type of brain cancer and found a way to get the cells to stick around long enough to deliver killer drug doses to the cancer cells. It’s at proof of concept stage — we can extend the life of mice with this cancer by about 200%, but we haven’t tried this in people. This may be years off, or not. Cancer is an information problem.

In one form or another this concept will change the world. Sooner or later we will figure out how to reprogram cells to seek out and destroy every last difficult-to-get cancer cell. No more mass collateral damage that kills healthy cells too. Then we’ll teach the immune system to stay alert and keep picking off any recidivists. No more recurrences.

This is just the beginning of customized, individualized medicine. Early days.


 Groundbreaking discovery made [...]

The good news medical revolution — this week’s cancer breakthroughs

The word revolution is overused and done to death. But in the case of medicine, we are in the midst of one. Here are three stories just out this week. It’s possibly none of these will end up being useful clinically, but the sheer volume of results like these mean that sooner or later getting a diagnoses of cancer will mean something very different. It’s time for good news stories. Let’s redirect the gravy train of pointless climate and renewables research. (Sell the ABC and use the money to double our medical research budget. How many lives might we change?*)

These are not instant miracles, but potential ones. The bladder cancer drug ultimately helped about a quarter of all patients. It was a small trial. Two patients of 68 appeared to reach the holy grail: to be tested free of cancer (though it doesn’t mean they are).  The second news report talks about a small study targeting a similar mechanism to stop melanoma that only helps about 30% of patients — the study successfully predicted which ones. In both cases the idea is to stop the cancer from hiding from the immune system. Some cancer cells produce molecules called PD-1 [...]