To Robert C. von Borstel, cancer is a metaphorical example of the perfect invasion by a founder species. Like the first pregnant finch that landed on a deserted island in the Galapagos Archipelago, the first cancer cell in the human body has to undergo many mutations through many generations to establish itself as an invader of different organs in the body. But once it is there, like any newly stabilized species in different ecological niches, cancer is tough to get rid of.
The former University of Alberta biologist has been working with DNA – the molecule that carries our cells’ genetic information – ever since 1947, six years before its structure was described by Watson and Crick. His fundamental Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) work on how radiation can kill cells, how the DNA molecule itself can control mutation, and other research has earned him a fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS).
Now, von Borstel, at the AAAS conference in San Francisco, to be held between Feb. 15 and 19, will deliver a talk about how cancer cell mutation and selection are metaphorically similar to how a new species begins its evolution.
"Of course, the difference with cancer is that it destroys itself when it kills you off, whereas many new species stabilize," von Borstel says. "Obviously, no metaphor is the be-all of reality. But I’m hoping this symposium I am hosting will help people look at cancer in a new light."
After growing up on a wheat and cattle ranch in Oregon, von Borstel was drafted into the U.S. Navy as a seaman first-class in 1944. Following the Second World War, he pursued his university education in the United States and joined Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1953, where he studied the effects of radiation on insects, and described the mechanisms by which control of insect pests by X-irradiation is achieved.
From there, he accepted a position as chair of the University of Alberta’s Genetics Department. While there, he received NSERC grants over a 25-year period after the Council was formed. Von Borstel’s principal research efforts were on the causes of spontaneous mutations and how genes repair themselves.
He remained at the university past his mandatory retirement in 1992, continuing research for another 10 years. It was during his "retirement" years that he discovered how DNA and their components, the nucleosides, can repair chromosomes damaged by radiation. This suggests there are many natural ways for animals and humans to heal themselves. Also, he and his colleague Oksana Iavorovska discovered that human ovarian endometriosis is induced in sun-lovers by the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight.
"It’s been a privilege for me to do my work for so long and, as a matter of fact, I wish I was able to continue doing it today," the 82-year-old professor emeritus says. "Just before my laboratory was closed, my team of researchers was studying the number of genes responsible for spontaneous mutation rates in yeast, and in our first random sample we discovered that one-third of them control the mutation rate, and we had expected that only about 4 per cent might affect the rate. This shows that no matter how long you carry out research, there’s always something surprising around the corner."
Robert C. von Borstel
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alberta
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