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The latest hope for stopping untreatable cancers traces its roots to a turn-of-the-century German zoologist, gazing into a microscope at the eggs of sea urchins.

Studying the process of fertilization, Theodor Boveri made a curious observation. In most cases, the correct number of urchin chromosomes lined up in perfect order and created an embryo. But every once in a while, the chromosomes would get scrambled, leading to unpredictable cell division and uncontrollable growth. Those aberrant divisions were the root cause of cancer, Boveri theorized in 1914, a once-controversial claim that has since been cemented in oncologic lore.

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