Rebel Cell: Book Review

Geneticist and award-winning science writer Kat Arney takes the reader back to the dawn of life on planet Earth right up to the present day to get to the heart of what cancer really is and how by better understanding it we might one day overcome it.

Cancer has been a burden for humans throughout our history. But it’s not a uniquely human problem, it can be found lurking in most living creatures going as far back as the dinosaurs.

Cancer arises when healthy, functional cells go wrong and start to grow and divide uncontrollably.

This could be triggered by an external factor, like smoking, or an ‘inside job’, like errors caused by our own DNA repair machinery, cancer cells take advantage of the forces of evolution and the genes essential for multicellular life to cause chaos in our bodies.

Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary problem, a disease of our own making caused simply by our modern lifestyles. But that’s not true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is an enemy lurking within almost every living creature. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of multicellular life.

This is why cancer is so difficult to eradicate. If we didn’t have the genes to drive our cells to divide, we’d still be single-celled goo floating around the primordial soup.

Over the last century researchers and clinicians invested so much effort and expense to make significant progress in understanding cancer and developing the treatments, but its a famously tricky problem, all too often the drugs don’t work.

In “Rebel Cell: Cancer, evolution and the science of life”, Dr Arney explores the origins of cancer and the progress of the ongoing work and hope that might one day help overcome it. Although you might think this will read like a textbook by looking at the cover, you’re actually in for a lively and entertaining piece of science storytelling.

The book opens with a tour of the history and biology of cancer, starting from the origins of life over 4 billion years ago, all the way up to the present day. Along the way, Dr Arney introduces some obscure creatures, such as comb jellies and sea sponges and uses them as examples to tell some stories relevant to understanding the nature of cancer.

Dr Arney uses humor, analogies, stories and metaphors to make technical concepts easier for people without extensive scientific knowledge to understand. She compares telomeres to shoe laces, and explains how mutations accumulate like ‘typos in the genetic recipe book within our cells.’

The middle section of the book is focused on explaining why the majority of current treatments fail and considers whether anything can be done about it. She uncovers the flaws in the pharmaceutical industry, describes current treatments as a game of whack-a-mole and explores why ‘cancer is unavoidable for some and maybe inevitable for all of us.’

Although it may feel a bit depressing, it’s notable that Dr Arney doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. Her use of personal experiences, interviews with famous scientists and in-depth understanding of the scientific literature also adds to the credibility of the explanations.

Towards the end of the book there’s a sense of optimism as Dr Arney puts forward solutions for deciphering the cancer cell’s ‘playbook’ in order to beat it at its own game.

Using data from clinical trials and research, Arney shows how understanding the evolutionary journey that these cells are on could help us to predict where they’re going and steer them towards an evolutionary dead end, so that we could overcome the problem.

She imagines cancer as an ecosystem and thinks of tissues like miniature habitats of the body and tumors as populations of diverse individuals roaming around these habitats subject to the rules of evolution. Even metastasis is cleverly described like a migrating population going in search of resources, risking their lives for the hope of making a better life for them and their offspring.

Dr Arney ends by telling us that cancer is not something alien, but an intrinsic part of our biology, and multicellular life, and understanding it as an evolving entity could potentially help us find new and successful therapeutic approaches.

Who is this book for:

This book really gets to the heart of the questions of ‘what is cancer?’ and ‘why do we get it’ and offers some new ways of thinking about it and overcoming it. The book has an incredibly lively tone that makes for such an entertaining and memorable read, which is great for the general public understanding of science. The book is aimed at anyone curious and eager to learn. Also, for those who are studying the subject in higher education, or working in the field, there are plenty of thought-provoking ideas to constantly keep you interested and turning pages.

What other People are saying:

‘A lively study of the Big C, which makes the case that cancer is the price we pay for our marvelously complicated bodies.’ The Times, best books of 2020

‘This book is packed with big ideas about life. Every chapter has something in it which made me think wow. Having worked in a major cancer charity for many years, Arney writes with genuine in-depth understanding and is a perfect guide.’ Daniel M. Davis, author of The Beautiful Cure

‘Rebel Cell is a bright, engaging read, fizzing with energy and metaphor. Kat Arney is a science writer for all of us – a powerful and talented story teller.’ Stephen McGann

‘Kat’s book is Dynamite. A crystal clear reappraisal of the story behind that word we fear to mention.’ Dallas Campbell, author of Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet

Cancer has always been with us. This book explains why in an easy to understand way and offers hope of a bright future in cancer research and clinical medicine.