The silk roads of cancer
The gathering of researchers spending their working life to understand the behaviour of a cancer cell should be focused and serious. One could argue that inviting a world-famous pianist and a historian all the way from Oxford to contribute to this scientific meeting dedicated to the devastating effects of tumors, would be rather strange. However, it happened yesterday at the meeting of the Cancer Center Amsterdam, the collaborative institute of the Academic Medical Center and the VU Medical Center in Amsterdam. A brief report.
It is difficult not to encounter information about cancer on a daily base when you work in the medical field. Our abundant amount of information is scattered, ranging from confetti platforms to super specialised ivory towers. One can find everything, varying from little diamonds to complete rubbish on Twitter or, for that matter, Pubmed. On the other end of the spectrum, there is an endless list of medical congresses all over the world, each discussing their own strategies to understand and combat the killer of our times. There is so much to know that one might realise that we do not know it all. However, subconsciously, we hope to at least look in the right direction.
And that could well be the core of the problem. Peter Frankopan, writer of the New York Times bestseller Silk Roads, delivers an uncomfortable first ten minutes of his lecture. “You are all very much unaware of the striking lack of dimension regarding the things you think matter in the world.” After showing some pictures of Western world leaders who all pass our timeline on a daily base, our complete lack of knowledge of the ten world leaders representing the majority of the world population is shamefully unmasking.
“Even scientists are very prone to amplify the so-called undeniable facts of others and themselves. We are afraid to look beyond our field of expertise and to connect dots in new ways.” The similarities between our narcissistic obsession with the Western world and the ability to look at the origin and the spread of diseases such as cancer. During the 30 minute lecture, as a young doctor and researcher, I realised the continuous struggle of the vain drive to strive towards a point to obtain some sort of territory of knowledge or the need to create borders in order to produce versus the fearless and open mind needed to dive into unknown territories of knowledge and to question all that has been stated as the truth so far.
The second guest of the evening puts our ability to stretch our mind to open up to new ways of thinking and observing even further. Michiel Borstlap, a renowned piano player famous for his improvisational work, delivers various on the spot responses on the facts delivered on stage. The way how a successful CRISPR experiment would sounds, and even more invigorating, an ad hoc composition of a failed CRISPR experiment, which combines dark jazzy notes with a trembling impatience of DNA structures wanting to be detangled.
It might not have been the evening at which one was given a more precise explanation on the molecular subtype of one rare form of liver cancer, nor was there a direct therapy at hand that would save thousands of innocent lives. The evening illustrated how it is possible to get the human mind to perform at its best: cross-linking in uncoded ways, to find new ways to approach a problem by allowing to question them again. It reminded me of the bold ways Alexander von Humboldt once revolutionised the sciences of nature which were completely segregated and divided in taxonomic cubicles of species by connecting all patterns together in his Naturgemälde and also organising congresses in a similar way.
Hopefully, the future of medical and other congresses will reinvent to concept of hybrid thinking by inviting other scientists and artists not to entertain but to disrupt or ivory towers and rigid thoughts.
See you next time?