Artists in residence at the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center, Biodesign Institute, ASU (2018)

Just back from an intensive three week residency in the new Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE) at the Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University. Part of their $8.5 million from the National Cancer Institute is being used to harness the creativity of the arts to introduce novel value in the research process.

Braving the blistering Arizona sun we scuttled between the labs of Professor Carlo Maley, investigating cancer dynamics from an evolutionary and ecological perspective and Professor Athena Aktipis who is researching cancer in multicellular bodies.  

We have returned with an inspiring mix of inspirations including cancer resistant sponges (not the ones used in the kitchen), fascinating multicellular organisms called Placozoa that cleave off damaged cells and some insights into the connection between intercellular interaction and cheating in human culture.

Maley’s lab are developing paradigm shifting insights that change the way we think about cancer. For us the most striking feature is the concept of ‘one health’ philosophy that links our fear over our individual health with a broader concern towards ecological health. The brutal language of ‘a war on cancer’ is being superseded with an understanding of the importance of sustaining a life giving balance.

A tumor is a complex environment with a diverse ecology of competing cells susceptible to subtle perturbations. Current therapeutic treatments lean heavily towards the brutal poisoning of both cancer and patient with limited results. ACE researchers are looking to nature for a radically new approach but by understanding the value of a shift towards a complex and intelligent treatment of cancer might we also unlock the answer to preserving the life sustaining functions of the blue sphere we call home.   

We have been fascinated by the semantically mutated cacti to be found in Biodesign’s cacti garden as well as the impressive crested saguaro cacti pictured above in the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix. Though these mutations closely relate to those that lead to cancer in humans, plant biology limits the impact on the organism as a whole. As a consequence these cacti with ‘cancer’ are highly sought after by collectors and protected in the wild.

We are now looking forward to the next stage where we will be in residence at The Barts Cancer Institute (BCI) and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London while we work on visual expressions inspired by cancer related biology, exhibitions in 2020-21 include:
Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth UK (17 July-4 October 2020);
ASU Art Museum, Arizona (August-Dec 2020);
Mayo Clinic, Arizona (tbc);
David J. Sencer CDC Museum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta (tbc).

We are currently developing the exhibition to include other international venues so if you would like to be a part of this project please contact Pamela Winfrey, Scientific Research Curator at the Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University.