March 3, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
Cancer, metaphors and Bond villains
There are metaphors that utterly change how we see the world and there are metaphors that change how we see microscopic bits of it. There are metaphors that are constitutive of theories in philosophy and science and there are more ephemeral ones that provide glimpses of new phenomena.
I am just reading a book by Jessica Riskin which shows that metaphors inspired by clockworks and automata allowed philosophers and scientists to see the world in entirely new ways. Technological inventions using cogs, pulleys and wheels became fodder for the scientific imagination for centuries. At the same time, I was reading about new cancer research where a cultural invention, namely James Bond films, became fodder for the scientific imagination, not for centuries, but at least twice, for a short time.
In both cases, metaphor grasps what is at hand, technologically or culturally, be it machines or movies, in order for us to better grasp the unknown and the, as yet, unexplored.
Bond villains and metaphors
In this post I’ll focus on the Bond metaphors and tell the story of how scientists thought and talked about tiny bits of DNA as Bond villains, first in interviews with a science writer, then in a piece on their work by one of their funders, Cancer Research UK. (I would recommend though that you also read the book by Riskin which deals with more earth-shattering metaphors)
As metaphors map what is known or familiar (the source domain) onto what is unknown or unfamiliar (the target domain), let us first established what is familiar about the Bond franchise and thus might have inspired cancer researchers.
All metaphorical mapping presupposes some knowledge of the source domain. Not everybody has this knowledge and this knowledge is unevenly distributed. As the focus is on Bond villains, let us see what the essential and most familiar features of a Bond villain are supposed to be. I found a nice list of these features on the internet, as I am not a Bond expert.
James Bond is a fictional British secret agent working for MI6 under the codename 007. He first appeared in books, then in many films. “The thing that makes each James Bond film truly memorable is the antagonist”, the villain that Bond fights. The distinguishing features of this villain are, it seems, (1) their physical appearance, deformity or costume; (2) their evil plan – to that feature I’d add the mastermind; (3) their poor record with women; (4) their accessories, gadgets, extras and henchmen; (5) their menace. To these features I would also add the menacing cat held by Bond villain Blofeld.
In addition, Bond films have certain essential qualities and additional characters such as the Bond girl, the car chases, the explosions and so on. Let’s see which ones of these features are mapped onto cancer.
Confronting the evil mastermind
On 18 February Robin McKie published an article in The Observer entitled, “‘Bond villain’ DNA could transform cancer treatment, scientists say”. For this article he had interviewed three scientists, Paul Mischel, Howard Change and Charles Swanton. The article starts out by saying: “Scientists have pinpointed pieces of DNA which, they say, act like Bond villains in the way they help cancers spread. These microscopic agents have also been shown to be responsible for helping tumours gain resistance to anti-cancer drugs.” So far, readers can’t really establish a mapping here between Bond villains and cancer, apart from the villainy involved in spreading cancer and gaining resistance to treatment – a double villainy.
The villains, indeed ‘agents’, that the scientists speaking to McKie talk about are little pieces or loops of DNA, extrachromosomal DNA or ecDNA, that help tumours, especially aggressive ones, gain resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They do this by, ‘outwitting’ the drugs and the scientists. In terms of drugs they outwit normal evolution and in terms of scientists they evade their efforts to trace where they are on the cancer maps that scientists are making (this is more clearly explained in the piece by CRUK). So, the focus is, to some extent, on the seminal Bond villain feature of the ‘evil plan’.
To gain further insight into the Bond-Villain cancer mapping, let’s have a look at what the three scientists have to say.
First Chang: “’We have found that ecDNA act as cancer-causing genes that have somehow separated themselves from a person’s chromosomes and have started to behave in ways that circumvent the normal rules of genetics,’ said Stanford university geneticist Howard Chang. ‘They behave like villains in a Bond film. At first, in a film, you see different explosions, killings and disasters occurring and you don’t know why they are happening or who is responsible. Then, at some point, you finally meet the villain who is revealed to be the agent of all this mayhem.’” Here the focus seems to be not on a particular feature of the villain but on the role of the villain as a whole, as enemy and evil doer who reveals himself gradually to Bond (the scientists).
Then Mischel: “’We have now discovered that, in some of the most aggressive forms of cancer, the oncogenes [cancer genes] aren’t where we thought they were. They are actually on extrachromosomal DNA,’ said Mischel. ‘The vulnerable gene had quickly disappeared when threatened by cancer drugs and was hidden in ecDNA. Then it reappeared once it was safe for it to start causing damage again.’ From this perspective, ecDNA is not just a villain. It is a criminal mastermind [adds Robin McKie]. ‘It can almost completely disappear from a tumour and then come back after you stop drug treatments,’ said Mischel.’” Here the focus is again on the evil plan but even more so on the evil mastermind behind that plan, a mastermind that can play hide and seek with Bond. That feature, highlighted by McKie, was also the focus of the CRUK piece.
Now Swanton: “’It can almost completely disappear from a tumour and then come back after you stop drug treatments,’ said Professor Charlie Swanton of the Francis Crick Institute in London. ‘That provides almost infinite adaptability.’” Here the focus is actually not on any essential feature of the Bond villain but on the devious behaviour of any villain, their ability to evade and adapt.
Overall, it seems that the Bond villain metaphor is used rather loosely and vaguely by these scientists – at least in this article.
Decoding the cunning plan
Things are a bit different in the story as told by Cancer Research UK and entitled “The ecDNA story – catching the mastermind behind cancer evolution”. The focus here is directly on the mastermind feature of the villain, which, indeed, seems to have been the focal point of the scientists’ mapping activities. Echoing McKie, they say: “So, in the most treatment-resistant cancers, it looks like ecDNA could be more than just another villain. We may have found the criminal mastermind.”
This article is a little masterpiece in science communication which I can’t summarise here without repeating the whole story. But it’s a story about cancer exploiting evolution by very “cunning” means (the word cunning is used twice in the article) to evade capture – and what is a Bond villain if not cunning. “If these bits of cancer DNA were characters in a story, you’d call them devious. Chang compares them to the villains in James Bond movies. They want control, and they’ll do whatever they can to get it.” Here they make use of another aspect of Bond films that I had not anticipated, the issue of ‘control’.
They also used the, more predictable, ‘secret agent’ feature of Bond films plus the gadgets and gizmos: “ecDNAs could sneak around the edges like spies. It was as if the ecDNAs were using code machines to scramble the messages scientists were reading from cancer cells. It was possible to see what they said, but not where they came from. With its new system for separating DNA by size as well as content, eDyNAmiC has cracked that code.”
Here the Bond metaphor merges with the more theory constitutive metaphor of the code, so ubiquitous in genetics and genomics. It is used so show that the scientists can outwit the villain, even a mastermind with a grand plan. They are good at decoding.
“’If you watch a Bond movie, or something like it, there’s a point where the villain starts explaining the grand plan,’ Chang continues. ‘They say, “This is how I’m going to take over the world!” And then you’re like, “Okay, that’s why all these things are happening!”. The scientists get into the villain’s head. ‘This is the equivalent of finding that master plan for cancer. All the important information is here.’” The scientists thwart the villain, cancer, by deciphering its masterplan.
Overall, this Bond villain framing of cancer is quite unique, as it depends not just on a mapping of one more specific features of a Bond villain onto cancer, but the mapping extends over much larger ranges of Bond villainy – we have to know that the villain is a mastermind with a masterplan, that it can hide and reappear, that it is adaptable and, that it is cunning.
At the same time as the Bond metaphor casts its net quite widely over Bond knowledge, it also leaves out some features, such as the villain’s, or indeed Bond’s, treatment of women, cats, the iconic car chases and the physical appearance of the villain. That was not always so.
The Scaramanga gene
Interestingly, when digging around cancer and Bond on the internet, I found a previous occasion when scientists had had metaphorical recourse to Bond in order to talk about thwarting the evils of cancer. In 2005 scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, reported “that a gene called Scaramanga — aptly named after the three-nippled villain from the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun — is involved in triggering breast development”. By studying normal and abnormal breast development they hoped to gain novel insights into breast cancer.
In this case the advance in cancer research was metaphorically framed by homing in on just one Bond villain feature: the villain’s physical appearance – the additional nipple on his manly chest. That’s quite a different use of the Bond source domain compared to the wide-ranging one in the more recent cancer breakthrough reporting.
Metaphors can change how we see the whole wide world (as if it was a clock) and metaphors can change how we see the microscopic world of cancer (as it if was a Bond movie). And it can do this in a myriad of different ways by mapping different features onto whatever we want to understand, communicate, detect of defeat. Sometimes this transformative work of metaphor can go on for centuries, sometimes only for a year or so, but without it, we would not be the humans we are today, for good or for ill.
It always amazes me how versatile metaphors are and how we can draw inspiration for metaphors from such a diverse range of phenomena, from moving bits of machinery to movies. We humans are quite cunning in this way.
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