Wells vs Mutant Mice


Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Wells has for some time insisted that genes actually don’t do much, and that mutations in genes cannot play a significant role in evolution. One aspect of this is his claim that mutations in genes play little role in cancer. If he can throw doubt on the ability of genetic mutation to produce cancer, then by implication genetic mutation is not a force in evolutionary biology, and cannot be sculpted by natural selection. I have written about genes, cancer and Jonathan Wells before showing that he is greatly mistaken. However, recently published work has provided yet more evidence for a central role of genetic mutation in cancer, and further demolishes (if that is possible) Wells’s thesis[1,2,3,4].

Cancer is, at its heart, a disease of uncontrolled cell growth. There are many pathways that control cell growth and senescence, so it is not surprising that in cancer mutations are found in several different genes associated with cell growth and senescence. The most common mutations found in humans are mutations in the gene for a protein called p53. p53 activates cell suicide or permanent growth arrest in stressed cells or cells with DNA damage. The mutations in cancer cells inactivate p53, preventing it from stopping out of control cells.

If Wells is right, and mutations are not responsible for (or central to) tumourogenesis, then inactivation or deletion of p53 should do very little. In fact, p53 is shown to be a key player in experimental models. In tissue culture, deletion of p53 alone can send cells into uncontrolled growth. In mice that have had p53 knocked out, virtually all of them develop tumours, while the control mice had no tumours[5]. This strongly suggests that mutations of p53 play a major role in generating tumours. All this was known when Wells wrote his TOPS article, but he mentions none of this evidence.

Three recent papers take the p53 a step further [1,2,3]. In these papers, p53 is replaced or reactivated in tumours in mice. If Wells is right, then reactivating p53 should be of little effect. The three recent papers used different techniques to reactivate p53. Despite this, and the different tumour types in the three papers, reactivation of p53 expression led universally to a prompt and impressive regression of the tumours in vivo. These results reinforce the role of mutations in p53 in cancer.

Wells’s favoured explanation for tumourogenseis is that chromosomal abnormalities, generated by centrosomes, are the key to cancer. I have dealt with his model of centrosomes before, but I will remind people that while chromosomal abnormalities are seen in many cancers, they are not seen in all cancers. Another recent paper has shown that in animals genetically engineered to have increased levels of chromosomal abnormalities [4], chemically or genetically induced tumour formation was inhibited. Thus, in certain kinds of cancer, chromosomal instability prevents tumourogenesis, the exact opposite of what Wells predicted.

Once again, real research trumps the tales of evolution deniers spun from airy nothingness. Is it any wonder that they do not expose their ideas to peer-review?



“Cancer is, at its heart, a disease of uncontrolled cell growth.”

It’s better to point out that cancer, is, at its heart, a genetic disease causing uncontrolled cell growth. However, in this instance, “genetic” means “of the genes,” not necessarily “inherited.” Only some of the mutations that cause cancer are inherited in some cases.

Or rather, a disease of uncontrolled cell growth produced by somatic mutations, “genetic” can be easily misinterpreted. But, as I had linked to extenisve discussions of cancer and its genesis, I didn’t want to do into the nitty gritty details (like the multiple mutations need to overcome checkpoints etc.).

Jonathan Wells, oncologist? I think I’d rather die of cancer than let him treat me.

Chinchillazill Wrote:

Jonathan Wells, oncologist?

With William “Divine Wind” Dembski as proctologist, ID racks up quite a team.

Perhaps Wells objects to the easily drawn analogy between cancer development and evolution by variation and selection (growth, crisis, variation, novelty, selection etc). Just the visible example it provides may inspire the desire to find “some other explanation” in case it comes up as a demonstration of the principles of natural selection in principle. In addition, I think/speculate that it gives at least conceptual clues on how organogenesis is cued/progressed or might even be artificially stimulated, let alone direct pointers to the genes/gene families to look at.

I agree with Chinchillazilla on his preferred treatment options.


Didn’t you know? All diseases are caused by SATAN!!! ;-)

In that Wells got his PhD courtesy of the financial largesse of the Rev. Moon and his Unification Church so that Wells could “destroy” Darwin, the good rev and his “church” bought a pig in the poke. Despite his PhD Wells, seems to understand little about biology, genetics, or cancer. If I were Moon, I’d demand my money back.

Thanks for the update, Ian. This is particularly poignant, since my mother was diagnosed with cancer yesterday (while it is a form of uterine cancer, which normally is not a good prognosis, they may have caught it in the early stages where a hysterectomy can completely remove the cancerous tissue). While the research you detail likely won’t help my mother (because of the length of time before clinical use), it’s good to know that science moves on in spite of the efforts of assholes like Mr. Wells (yes, Mr., he doesn’t deserve the title Moon bought him).

Kevin Vicklund points out the real evil of the creationist movement. For a lot of us, cancer isn’t a cutesy talking point. I’ve lost two family members to it in the last few years and my husband and sister have both been diagnosed with (so far, treatable) cancers. But Jonathan Wells thinks it’s FUN to spread complete nonsense about its cause and possible cure! In the hopes of– what? Cutting off funding to the NIH? Or, maybe, diverting them to studying bogus ID nonsense instead of possible cures? Gee, I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourself, Jonny, baby. After all, cancer is such a giggle. You should have been at my father’s funeral. It was a real laff riot.

Hello folks,

I am among the authors of one of the papers cited. Just wanted to let you know that I was very pleased to find it was being used to debunk the crazy (and dangerous) I.D. movement. Keep up with the good work, this country needs more rational thinkers like you.


I earlier mentioned that my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She underwent surgery last week to remove the cancer. Today she received a clean bill of health - the surgery was successful with no need for radiation or chemo.

Unfortunately, she was diagnosed mid-month with breast cancer. Fortunately, it is a ductal carcinoma in-situ, which means there is a good chance that she’ll only need surgery for that one as well. A lumpectomy, not a mastectomy.

People like Wells only hold back real research.

did you know i am SATAN?!!!

as a matter of fact, sjc, i DO NOT, being Satan as I am, cause all the diseases of the world. Didn’t you ever go to ninth grade biology class??

;)The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on January 30, 2007 5:34 PM.

‘Creationism’ Measure Tabled in New Mexico - One Down, Three to Go was the previous entry in this blog.

“Monkey Girl”, by Ed Humes, on the Dover Trial is the next entry in this blog.

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