Among the topics Princeton University researchers discussed during the 2013 AAAS annual meeting:
Despite incredible advances in our understanding of biology and millions of research dollars spent, cancer remains a leading cause of death worldwide. Moving toward a cure will require a new understanding of cancer as a disease with varying characteristics, or heterogeneities, that make it resistant to conventional one-size-fits-all approaches. Yet that very heterogeneity may provide a key to controlling cancer. Austin, director of the Princeton Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, a five-institution center funded by the National Institutes of Health, will explore cancer from a physics perspective. Austin compares cancer research to the stage of understanding that high-energy physics was in the 1960s: a bewildering array of particle resonances with little underlying qualitative or quantitative understanding – in other words, a great deal of heterogeneity. However, theory and experiment unified that knowledge into what we now call the Standard Model. Austin will argue that a Standard Model for cancer could arise out of the vast complexity of the disease as we currently understand it, and could provide insight into the possible existence of a “Higgs boson,” a factor that may be the linchpin of cancer’s heterogeneity.
Wisdom Can Be Painful: Third Molar Impaction in Human Populations and Its Evolutionary Significance
Alan Mann, Professor of Anthropology
The dramatic increase in the size of the brain over the course of human evolution forced changes to the skull’s architecture. Those shifts left today’s humans with a shortened dental arcade that often cannot accommodate an adult’s 32 teeth. The final tooth to erupt, the third molar known as a “wisdom tooth,” often ends up either out of alignment or impacted. That can lead to chronic pain, but generally not death. Thousands of years ago, a genetic change or changes brought about the suppression of the calcification of the third molar. This reduced problems with the third molar and allowed people with the change to reproduce at a slightly greater rate than those without it. The frequency of third molar suppression has increased, with 25 percent of individuals in many human populations lacking at least one third molar. Medical interventions available in the developed world have reduced the positive selective value of this change, but it remains a “scar of human evolution” in much of the developing world.