2012: Robert Austin

Darwin, Evolution and Cancer

Dr. Robert Austin
Princeton University

Of all human maladies, cancer remains the most recalcitrant. In spite of vast amounts of monies spent, the overall mortality rate for the past 40 years has been basically flat. To this day, the best defense has remained early detection followed by surgical removal. Often, by the time symptoms appear it is too late because the tumor has metastasized and become inoperable. Chemotherapy, basically the administration of poisons designed to kill rapidly growing cells, typically wins remission for a period of time but unfortunately also typically fails because the tumor cells evolve resistance to chemotherapy. Recently, the National Cancer Institute has called for help from the physical sciences to help understand cancer and discover ways to treat it. My own view as a physicist is that we have to entirely rethink cancer as being not a disease but rather perhaps the inevitable result of the rapid evolution of the homo sapiens species. I will examine the roots of evolution as viewed from a more modern form of Darwinian natural selection, and present some experiments that indicate that evolution and cancer are inevitably linked together.


About the Speaker

Bob Austin leads a research group based in the physics department of Princeton University. His research focuses primarily on the use of microarrays and nanotechnology to further our physical understanding of biological processes, such as the dynamics of cells when subjected to stress. The ultimate goal of his research is to understand, and possibly guide, the evolution of microorganisms by culturing them inside custom-made micro-environments. Professor Austin is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.


About the Lecture Series

In 2011, The Barry Berman Memorial Lecture Series was created through a generous gift by one of his close collaborators and colleagues, Professor Cedric Yu, a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Radiation Oncology. Professors Berman and Yu formally worked together under a NIH-funded project on radiation cancer therapy. The goal of the lecture series is to inspire young people to study medical physics, by inviting nationally and internationally prominent scientists to speak on the application of physics principles to medicine.