Cancer, Caveman and Art

Alex Cagan is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Cancer, Ageing and Somatic Mutation programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. He investigates evolutionary processes in somatic tissue, and is also a scientific live-sketcher and illustrator.

Who is your science hero?

Leonardo da Vinci. He combined science and art; I think it’s sad now that they’re so separate. He showed that careful observation is key for both art and science, and he was a great observer. Just by looking at things he was able to work out things like fluid dynamics, how animals behave and water motions. It all resulted in beautiful art and scientific breakthroughs. By looking at fluid dynamics in rivers and autopsies of the human body he was able to come up with theories about how the heart pumps, which then all had to be rediscovered centuries later, because people didn’t pick up on it at the time.

Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

Cancer and ageing across animal species.

What is the most overused word or phrase in your lab?

Caveman. It’s a software we use to call somatic variants in tissues. It’d either be that or an expletive.

Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

Beautiful gardens. Big data. Great people.

Why did you become a scientist?

By accident. Initially I thought I would become a primatologist. I went out to Uganda to study chimpanzees in the field, and I loved that, but I found it very challenging to collect enough data to say anything useful. Through that, I’d been doing some genetics projects on the side.

I believe that by collecting quantitative data, you can make new discoveries that you can believe in. Before that, I’d been more down the arts and humanities side, and I really love that and enjoy it, but a lot of it was debating one view against the other. I thought with science, there’s real data you can collect, and whether your theory is correct or not, your data can be used by generations in the future.

What is the most exciting development in your field from the last 10 years?

About three years ago, here at Sanger actually, it was discovered that cells in healthy individuals are full of mutations that we used to think were tumour or cancer mutations. It’s kind of reassuring that you can be healthy and have those, but no one really expected it.

That was just discovered in skin, so we’re now looking at the rest of the body to try and work out the extent of it.

It shows that evolution is happening within your body at a genetic level while you’re alive. Adaptation and selection, that we usually think of as going on in populations, like Darwin’s finches, are actually going on in your body throughout your lifetime.

What is the most surprising discovery you have made?

It’s not published yet. It comes from a collaboration with London Zoo so involves lots of cool animals.

If you could time travel to any period in history, which would you pick?

I’d quite like to go back and see the dinosaurs. And get samples.

If you were omnipotent for the day, what is the first thing you would do?

Cure cancer sounds too wholesome. I don’t think I would change anything, I would just mess it up, and there would be terrible knock on effects whatever good I tried to do.

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