SHE doesn’t dwell on it, but 82-year-old Lydia Knott knows what will happen to her after death. Her body will be taken to a laboratory for an unusual post-mortem.
It won’t be to find the cause of her demise. Knott was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago. After surgery to remove part of her lung, she is now doing well: “Fine for an 82-year-old, I can’t complain.” But if the disease returns and kills her, Knott wants doctors to learn more about her cancer through a “warm autopsy”, so-called because it happens soon after someone dies.
Within 24 hours, a team would remove up to 80 tissue samples and preserve them using liquid nitrogen. One of the aims is to fathom cancer’s surprising ability to evolve. The same forces that shape the tree of life also drive tumours to spawn and spread, generating a vast genetic diversity of cancer cells within a single person.
Now, thanks to recent leaps in genetic sequencing, the hope is that we can trace a cancer’s evolutionary journey and create powerful treatments using this information. “We may actually have the technology to cure many cancers – we just haven’t been using the right strategy,” says Robert Gatenby at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.
We might even be able to stop tumours developing in the first place, but it won’t be easy. “We are battling natural selection, one of the fundamental laws of the universe,” says Charles Swanton at the Francis Crick Institute in London, co-leader of the study that Knott has signed up to. “But I think this is our best …