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Using Game Theory to Treat, and Beat, Cancer

Putting cancer on the defensive.

Imagine the human body as if it were a three-dimensional playing board, its “squares” (or cubes, rather) so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye—a couple of hundred, or perhaps a few thousand, cubic micrometers in size. Such are the dimensions of most human cells.

Now imagine a brutal game is being played out on this 3D board. Player One is cancer. It makes the first move. And it takes over more and more squares until Player Two—the body’s own immune system—recognizes the threat and starts fighting back. Soon, though, the malignant side evades the defenders and gains ground anew. The cancerous tumor gets bigger until, eventually, it takes up so much of the playing board that you (the host of this unfortunate game) can’t help but notice and go nervously to the doctor.

That’s the first game: cancer stealthily emerging in the body.

But now begins a second one. And here, in theory, the rules change: Player One, this time, is the oncologist—and she or he often begins the game by attacking the cancer with massive doses of cytotoxic drugs. The aim, in this case, is to wipe out Player Two before it can recover and start spreading again.

Sometimes, this straightforward bludgeon of a strategy works. But often—too often, unfortunately—it doesn’t. Malignant cells that are resistant to the initial therapy survive and then repopulate; before long, these battle-hardened rebels spread to distant parts of the body. That’s called metastasis, and once the process starts, it’s very hard to stop. Player Two wins.

This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that this rotten scenario will play out 609,640 times in the United States alone.

Read on: Using Game Theory to Treat, and Beat, Cancer

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