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In a novel I am writing, one of the characters is an immortal* shape-shifter, called 'Creature'. Creature has been around since shortly after the beginning of life on earth. Its cells divide/replicate 1000X times faster than a human's, and it can consciously control this proccess to shape-shift and grow in any way it wants (within the constraints of normal, real-world biology).

My question is, how would Creature avoid cancer? All this super-fast cell division should result in cancer, but it doesn't. How?

The proccess can be direct action taken by Creature, or something already present in its physiology.

*Creature can be killed, but won't die of old age/has an indefinite lifespan.

OK, some of the answers/comments made me realize I need to clear up a few things:

  • Creature cannot control cancerous cells. It cannot make them divide or stop them from dividing.
  • Creature can cannot detect single cancerous cells. It can only detect them once they reach a critical number, around 100 million or so.
  • The shapeshifting proccess is similar to The Thing in the 1982 movie., although I'm not sure about the speed.

Sorry if this negates any of your answers.

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    $\begingroup$ If it conciously controls the division and replication of its cells, wouldn't it be feasible that it can also control this to a point where he either removes cancerous cells immediately (slowing down his shapeshift?) or just doesn't produce cancer cells in the first place, since it would need to conciously decide to make cancer? $\endgroup$ – Christian Jun 24 '15 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ask a naked mole rat. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_mole-rat#Resistance_to_cancer $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Jun 24 '15 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Whelkaholism wow I must learn from this interesting rodent to live longer, from tomorrow onwards I'll introduce my own excrement into my diet and I'm planning a party with this anyone interested? $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jun 24 '15 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you worried about cancer and not about all sorts of other diseases? Presumably you're going to have to do some hand waving to explain why this creature hasn't died from SOME disease in all those millennia, why it doesn't get small pox or dysentery or ebola or whatever. So just add cancer to the list of diseases that it is magically immune to. BTW why do you insist that it can't control cancerous cells? Why not? Maybe cancer is important to your story line in ways you haven't spelled out. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jun 24 '15 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanKrage But, you're just making all this up for your story. So if something you're making up for your story paints you into a corner, then make up something different. I don't know that much about medicine, but I presume there's more to fighting off disease than having lots of white blood cells, or all doctors would have to do to cure all diseases instantly is to find a way to boost white blood cell count. They wouldn't be wasting time on hundreds of different drugs. I have diabetes. The problem is too much sugar in my blood. Having more white blood cells wouldn't help that at all. Etc. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jun 25 '15 at 13:19

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I see two main approaches here:

  1. It takes care of individual cancer cells immediately.

If this Creature conciously controls the division of his cells, to me it seems reasonable to assume that he can also remove cells, or at the very least not let them replicate further on their own. Especially if he uses this for his shapeshifting ability, he'd have to get rid of cells in certain places to assume the form he wants.

If we then assume that he can recognize when a cell is cancerous, he could opt to remove it immediately, or let it sit in isolation until it dies, without further dividing this specific one.

This could also be used for plot points maybe - cancerous cells might slow down its shapeshifting ability because it has to take care of them while it tries to take on a different form. Or maybe that's why it only uses the ability rarely, because in time it produces more and more cancer cells? It might kill Creature in the end, or make its ability become less and less efficient until it can't use it at all anymore.

  1. It can't identify cancer cells and removes tumors later

Maybe your Creature just doesn't know immediately when a cell is cancerous, and thus can't take care of it. That would mean that tumors would build up in its body, and it has to take care of them regularly, which is not as bad for Creature as it is for humans, because its ability implies that natural healing is a lot more efficient.

The tumor could be removed via operations, which might require your creature to depend on others to operate him from time to time. It'd have to regularly find new trustworthy surgeons as the old ones die. In extreme cases, it might opt to just crudely cut off/out a part of its own body and regrow it. Depends on how quickly its abilities work.

Another way would be a more "natural" approach: maybe this creature, by very specific division and killing of cells, can cut off parts of its body, even on the inside. These parts would die off, somehow be removed from the body (similarly to a digestion system) and then replaced with new, healthy cells.


I could also imagine that it has somehow adapted to just living with cancer, but I don't know enough medical details about what cancer does and doesn't to come up with a believable scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ Makes sense to me. If the creature can detect it has a tumour in e.g. its leg, it can probably grow some kind of membrane around the tumour, and then "grow" it out of its body, ejecting it like we might lose scar tissue or worse. This could be suitably gross effect for a scfi-fi thriller or horror story, and also perhaps a grisly calling card/foreshadowing of the creature being nearby. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Jun 24 '15 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Since cancerous cells are so troublesome because their division rate is out of control, it stands to reason that Creature could easily recognize cancerous cells as the ones it can't control. $\endgroup$ – talrnu Jun 25 '15 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ Brain cancer would be troublesome with the second approach. $\endgroup$ – Grollo Sep 27 at 14:49
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TL:DR - biologically speaking, he can't get cancer in the first place

Cancer is caused by mutations in cell DNA which lead to the cell being unable to control functions like growth, death (cells can self-destruct), tissue-typing (i.e. you be a skin cell, you be a liver cell) and adhesion to neighboring cells.

Here's another relevant piece of information: cancer isn't the only thing standing in the way of organism mortality. There are lots of other problems. One of them is that chromosomes are capped with protective pieces of DNA called Telomeres which gradually degrade and are not properly repaired. Once they're gone, actual cell DNA at the tips of chromosomes is liable to damage.

In summary, a lot (not all - you'll need to do some hand-waving) of the problems caused by ageing is due to DNA damage. Cells are not very good at repairing their own DNA. In fact they cause damage to their genetic code when they divide and make a copy of the DNA to pass into the daughter cell.

In order for Creature to be immortal in the first place, his cells are going to have to do a much better job of copying and maintaining his DNA than your average mammal. In order for him to grow so fast and shape-shift, he'll need the ability to control cell adhesion and tissue-typing too.

So: as a side-effect of the biology necessary to his unique abilities (copy and maintain his DNA perfectly, and has total control over adhesion and tissue structure), he can't possibly get cancer.

(I am a former geneticist, although I haven't worked in the field for 20 years. This information should be largely accurate, although my recollection may be hazy and it is, of course, not up with the latest research.)

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  • $\begingroup$ What about certain Jellyfish, or lobsters who just don't age? There is almost no genetic degradation in them, so they could live eternally if not for accidents like predators or diseases... $\endgroup$ – Falco Jun 24 '15 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Falco Most jellyfish do age and die: one particular species achieves a peculiar form of immortality by effectively regressing to a juvenile stage and then growing again. They're not affected by cancer because they're incredibly simple organisms that don't have the complexity of organs or cell types of mammals. Lobsters are not immortal - that's a myth - and interestingly their longevity is due to an unusual ability to repair telomeres. $\endgroup$ – Bob Tway Jun 24 '15 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanKrage Well, that's a different question to the one you've asked. I would say avoiding damage and copying errors was impossible. You would need some sort of 100% accurate repair mechanism, which is hard to imagine within realistic constraints. My point is that without this putative repair, Creature can't be immortal in the first place. And what I've given you so far ought to be enough to convince 99% of readers. $\endgroup$ – Bob Tway Jun 24 '15 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Otherwise known as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. $\endgroup$ – Aron Jun 24 '15 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt Thrower: Yet in the computer world, we have copying/repair mechanisms which are far less prone to errors than DNA replication, and capable of detecting & correcting errors that do occur. The human genome can be stored in about 750 Mbytes (here, for instance: stackoverflow.com/questions/8954571/… ), less than 1% of the capacity of a cheap SSD. which we expect to store our files without errors. (Other than complete failures, which in a creature would equate to death.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 25 '15 at 6:36
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Assume Creature has conscious control of its immune system, then it just programs the system to attack any cell (or large group of cells) which appear cancerous. Note that this is an active area of research in cancer treatment: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-toc

This also takes care of the problem of diseases &c.

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  • $\begingroup$ I came here to say the same thing! +1 for you, $\endgroup$ – Jason Hutchinson Jun 24 '15 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yep. There are several examples of people's minds being able to cause cancer remission. Placebo effect, multiple personalities, mental imaging, attitudes, and cultural beliefs have been correlated to some dramatic cases of cancer remission, as well as statistical effects on cancer survival. So humans can do it, even if we don't know exactly how and haven't mastered it. So your creature with its conscious control over its shapeshifting, would quite plausibly also be able to eradicate cancer in itself. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Jun 25 '15 at 5:29
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Cancerous tissue (in most cases) kills by growing uncontrolled and leaving no space for other cells. If the creature can control cell growth, cancer should not be an issue as it is in humans. If no cell can grow uncontrolled, it does not matter whether the cell is cancerous or not.

However, mutations, could be a problem, which leads to cells just not doing what they are supposed to be. You could solve this by using long-living stem cells which are in a frozen-like state, have a slow metabolism and don't do anything except replicating every hundred years. Then these stem cells could be a way to conserve the original genetic information.

Another option would be to just select the fittest cells for survival. The creature would then evolve over hundreds of years. Only the mechanism, which selects and controls cell growth and thus shape shifting has to be preserved and has to be able to perform this task over million of years. Maybe this is controlled by cells that have a slower growth rate than the rest of the tissue.

EDIT: If cancer means that the control of cell growth and shape shifting doesn't work for cancerous cells, cancer could be a problem. The shapeshifter could grow a layer of healthy cells around the cancerous tissue which does not allow any nutrients to enter inside the cancerous tissue, which lets the cancer cells die of hunger. (Note that cancer cells usually grow very fast and need a lot more nutrients than healthy cells). If the shapeshifter can controll the growth of cells into any shape, he can probably easilly detect if cells don't grow the way he wants and can thus detect the cancer cells.

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It periodically makes a copy of itself which it stores in suspended animation. If things go wrong without the possibility of repairing the problem, it will bring to life an old copy of itself that with the information it now has, can avoid the problem. It then commits suicide.

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    $\begingroup$ A very creative, outside-the-box answer. I like it! $\endgroup$ – Ryan Krage Jun 24 '15 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ But the copy is not itself, any more than your identical twin is you. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jun 25 '15 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Identical twins are not exact copies. An exact copy will by definition have to have the same identity as the person had at the time the copy was made, otherwise it couldn't have been an exact copy. Everything you can experience is, in principle, a measurement of your physical state. An exact copy of your physical state would thus be sufficient. In practice, the copy need not be exact, because what you experience is encoded by your brain and there are many different physical states that would yield the same experience. $\endgroup$ – Count Iblis Jun 25 '15 at 18:45
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If Creature can detect a lump of cancer cells, he could just steer his healthy cells to shapeshift the body in such a way, that the cancerous lump is no longer provided with nutrients and fresh oxygen. Without metabolism, the lump would just die and could be reabsorbed by Creature.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest this. Just shapeshift the blood vessels away from the tumour. Or shift any failed cells to the surface and take a shower. $\endgroup$ – superluminary Jun 26 '15 at 15:54
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I try to answer your question and go off on a few tangents... sorry.

Well, first off, if you are going for x1000 cell division rate you probably would need to take a few liberties away from true realism. If a x1000 cell goes out of control there is not much it can do except for discharge it(which would probably result in an abomination of sorts if it manages to survive.)

Anyway, in order to replicate a cell first needs to acquire all the materials needed for 2 cells. For x1000 times the regeneration it would need enough materials and energy for 1001 cells... which is a lot to manage. If it is shape shifting it would need to break down its previous cells or have compressed super-materials that it can build or break down to compress or expand its mass(which would still have the same mass even at different sizes and still have limitations on how much it can change its size.) In this case it really does not need to care much about cancer because if cancer starts to form it can just start breaking it down again.

When it comes to extra mass it can stash organic material places that it can find if it wants to change its size kind of like a storage unit it can re-assimilate(which would make it more efficient than carrying around mass it is not using.)

If you are going for very fast morphing it would probably be more efficient if it throws up an facade of sorts while it actually makes the real change more slowly.

I think the hive-mind creature could work as well. It could be made of of small primitive creatures with different purposes that are intelligent as a whole. The hive would evaluate its peers and so it would automatically deal with cancer cells.

To be fair, the human body is a bit weird itself: there are many non-human symbiotic organisms inside the human body (some sources might suggest they outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.) You could play around with symbiotic organisms taken to more of an extreme.

Oh, and just to note: shape-shifting and hyper-regeneration would mean the creature would need to be ridiculously energy efficient or have ungodly appetite.

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  • $\begingroup$ Peter Watts' 'The Things' short story explores a very simillar idea (and is written by a former biologist). $\endgroup$ – skolima Jun 26 '15 at 14:22
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I think you'd have to redefine what is cancerous for this particular individual. It sounds like it's entire body is a cancer of sorts except he has control over it.

To be able to do the things it does and not actually die of cancer in a couple of years, it must have a highly developed immune system that evolved with it that is extremely aggressive to any gene pattern not fitting within it's parameters. This also means that some changes it might try to perform it's body might actively fight against it because of 'foreign' substances, breaking down anything that doesn't belong and immediately uses it for healthy cells.

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Cut off all blood supply to the cancer, then digest it.

Why rely on the things that Earth animals do to fight cancer when you can change your body at will?

Cancers, like all portions of the body, must receive blood to grow. Furthermore, for most cancers, in order to become dangerous, they must become malignant. If your creature is smart and gives itself redundant organs, this could easily be true of all cancers. Luckily for your creature, while it may be incapable of controlling the growth of the cancer, it is fully capable of controlling the growth of everything surrounding the cancer.

Your creature can simply grow a thick, acid resistant membrane around any cancer it develops. Then, fill this membrane with acid and digest the cancer. Without blood or lymph vessels connecting to it, the cancer should be unable to spread wile this happens.

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Normal biology evolved to be imperfect in replication. Multi-cell life is a recent innovation. For most of its existence on Earth, individual cells were "successful" or not, and a long part of the ramp up to complex life was evolving the mechanism for evolution itself. It needs to copy well enough but not too perfectly, as well as allow for mutations to build up something useful without making the cell non-viable in the mean time.

That's not what we want for use within the tissue of a multi-cell animal.

A cell could be designed not to mutate. The copy mechanism is more robust, doesn't shuffle things around "just because", and has strong error checking and correcting codes like we use in our information storage technology.

A living cell might find it too much overhead (thus less efficient) to constantly checksum every gene expression, so that would not be expected to arise naturally. But it could be engineered: add a step in the complex transciption process used by eucaryote cells, to check protein coding genes, and somehow also check regulatory regions at least periodicly, certainly when replicating.

The replication mechanism already instantiated in the metabolism checks the code in both copies, before it is allowed to do anything more. In general, any error should be a fatal error, rather than being fault tolerant like real life. It should be brittle in light of changes, not robust.

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Well, first off you probably want to drop "within the constraints of normal, real-world biology." from anywhere in your premise, because basically everything you mention (1000x cell division, conscious control of cell division, whatever "any way it wants) are clearly outside of "normal, real-world biology."

If you really are trying to have this in any way realistic your premise also has a ton of other flaws. For instance, even at that rate, changing into anything is an hours/days affair. To change, our hero has to eat hundreds of pounds of food, and excrete hundreds of pounds of excrement.

Bottom line is your idea is entirely unrealistic, and if you want realism you should find something else.

Either way, this should be of interest: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_immortality

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Ever seen the Declaration of Independence? The original document, when on display? I was amazed at how much effort is expended on keeping it preserved and yet with all that effort, it has faded significantly and continues to fade. Your cancer question has the same critical issue--in order to recognize a cancerous cell, it must know what the original DNA (or whatever this being utilizes for its cellular instructions) looks like, otherwise there can be no recognition of when cancer occurs. If the being has an internal biological vault which safely stores the single original DNA structure created at conception, it would always have an accurate map to determine when newly created cells are acceptable or have mutated from the norm.

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As others have suggested, maybe cancerous cells do form, but the immortal's body deals with them.

But my suggestion is that once the tumor reaches a certain size, it is simply disconnected and shape-shifted out of the body. Without resources, the tumor dies (assuming the immortal does not burn it or throw it in acid).

At least, most of the time it dies...

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protected by Community Jun 26 '15 at 18:18

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