Paul Davies knows what’s wrong with cancer research: too much cash and too little forethought. Despite billions of dollars invested in fighting this disease, it has remained an inscrutable foe. “There is this assumption that you can solve the problem by throwing money at it,” he says, “that you can spend your way to a solution.” Davies, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University (ASU)—and therefore somewhat of an interloper in the field of cancer—claims he has a better idea. “I believe you have to think your way to a solution.”
Over the course of several years spent pondering cancer, Davies has come up with a radical approach for understanding it. He theorizes that cancer is a return to an earlier time in evolution, before complex organisms emerged. When a person develops cancer, he posits, their cells regress from their current sophisticated and complex state to become more like the single-celled life prevalent a billion years ago.
But while some researchers are intrigued by the theory that cancer is an evolutionary throwback, or atavism, plenty more think it’s silly. That theory suggests that our cells physically revert from their current form—a complex piece in the even more complex puzzle that makes a lung or a kidney or a brain—to a primitive state akin to algae or bacteria, a notion that seems preposterous to many scientists. Yet gradually, evidence is emerging that Davies could be right. If he is—if cancer really is a disease in which our cells act like their single-celled ancestors of eons ago—then the current approach to treatment could be all wrong.
Davies had never considered researching cancer when he received a call from biologist Anna Barker in 2007. At the time, Barker was the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, and she told Davies about a new initiative there seeking to bring…