Nautilus

Cancer Isn’t a Logic Problem

The impulse that disruptive technologies employed by software engineers can be applied to biology, as an analog to a machine or computer with bugs which can be hacked or solved—suggested in “hacking cancer”—is deeply engrained. The problem goes back centuries.Photograph by N.I.H. Image Gallery / Flickr

A year ago, Joe Biden launched his “cancer moonshot,” a major national push to improve the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer, a plan that was widely recognized to be incremental. “I believe that we need an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it,” Biden said while he was on his tour to cancer centers at Penn and Duke University. “I’m not naïve. I didn’t think we could ‘end cancer.’ I’m not looking for a silver bullet. There is none.” Many thought the “moonshot” risked casting the solution to cancer as an engineering problem.

In his op-ed in the New York Times last year, “We Won’t Cure Cancer,” Jarle Breivik, professor of medicine at the University of Oslo, emphasized the government plan was typical of “huge programs, stocked with technology and experts, to solve presumably intractable problems”—but cancer is as much an organic and ecological issue as an engineering problem with bugs or glitches to be worked out. “Cancer isn’t

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