The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Highlights of the Presentation by Michael E. Kerr, MD on TOFT (Tissue Organization Field Theory): Relevance to Cancer and to Bowen Theory

Authored by Leslie Ann Fox, M. A.

“If physical and emotional illnesses are accurately conceptualized as driven by biological and physiological processes that occur time and again in most clinical conditions, then it suggests that most illnesses are driven by common processes that can be conceptualized as a “unidisease.” Michael E. Kerr, MD

It was another compelling presentation by Michael Kerr, MD, President of the Bowen Theory Academy that captivated the audience at the CFC Midwest Symposium on May 3, 2019 and evoked an engrossing discussion afterward. Dr. Kerr has captured our attention for many years by sharing his work investigating scientific evidence that would support a potential new concept to add to Bowen theory. He calls it “the unidisease concept” and first described it in the book Family Evaluation (Kerr& Bowen, 1988).

In biology a number of scientists and medical researchers over the years noticed an apparent relationship between the onset of various diseases and disturbances in the homeostasis that exists at all levels within a human body. Since 1976, Dr. Kerr has been doing a “scientific inquiry” to better understand these relationships between disturbances in homeostasis within an individual body as well as at the level of the family emotional system. This concept provides a unique perspective regarding the onset of complex chronic conditions such as cancer, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. In his recently published book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets (Kerr 2019), writes that “studying the biology of psoriasis along with other clinical conditions led me to formulate a ‘systems model of disease’ in the 1980s, an idea that is at the core of the unidisease concept” (P. 309). It has significant implications for future research of the chronic physical and mental diseases that appear to occur with some regularity in families across the generations.

For most of the last century, cancer researchers have focused on pathology at the cellular level, on the individual cancer cell, what turns it on and how it behaves. At this conference, Dr. Kerr reported on a different theory, the Tissue Organization Field Theory (TOFT), first proposed by Carlos Sonnenschein, MD and Ana M Soto, MD in their 1999 book The Society of Cells: CANCER and control of cell proliferation. Sonnenschein and Soto suggest that the somatic mutation theory of carcinogenesis needs to be replaced by a new paradigm to study cancer at the level of the tissue in which the cancer grows. Dr. Kerr explained that proliferation is the default of all cells. Cells are programmed naturally to keep dividing. Other regulatory processes in the body restrain that proliferation to keep the particular tissue field in balance, capable of performing its functions as a liver, or kidney, or colon, etc. Sonnenschein and Soto proposed that “neoplasia is a defect of tissue organization, rather than a subcellular phenomenon as postulated by the somatic mutation theory.”(P. xi)

Using the TOFT theory will help researchers explore the complexities that go beyond somatic mutation theory. For example, a disturbance of the regulatory processes can come from a variety of sources; from internal sources such as genetics, to external ones such as bacteria, viruses, pollution, etc. The presence of inflammation appears to be a common link to the triggering of cancers, and stress has been tied to inflammation. In fact inflammation has been shown to be present in many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, depression, etc. Does inflammation interfere with homeostasis and the regulation processes needed to keep the body in balance for optimal functioning? And if stress and inflammation are part of this more complex picture of biological functioning, certainly the stress that is engendered in human social systems, particularly at the level of family relationships is ripe for future research.

There were a number of new ideas that l was pondering as I left the conference, but TOFT seemed especially important. TOFT strongly suggests that context is essential to understanding cancer. Thus, one take-away was that studying context matters as much as or possibly even more than studying the individual cancer cell. A dynamic complex process is happening at the tissue level.

Another important take-away was that proliferation of cells is a default mode of cellular life, and cancer is characterized by rampant proliferation of cells that interfere with vital functions, thus, cancer is part of the evolutionary process in the natural world. It is constrained by a network of complex biological regulatory systems influenced at many levels in the body. In the case of cancer, when relevant regulatory systems are disturbed, the natural evolutionary process of cell proliferation is unleashed.

Going a step further, these processes could include the individual’s internal emotional system, which is influenced by the family relationship system and the larger community of social systems in which the body functions. Disturbances in the family emotional system, in combination with other factors, such as the genes that pass from generation to generation, along with a variety of environmental factors, such as smoking, or exposure to pollutants, would determine the specific chronic disease or diseases that would emerge when the emotional balance in a system is disturbed. It might be cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, or schizophrenia, depression, etc. The case for moving cancer research from primarily using the somatic mutation theory to using the tissue organization field theory would be a big leap forward, and is possibly inevitable. Continuing to seek scientific evidence to support the “unidisease concept” thus becomes a more compelling endeavor than ever.

Leslie Fox


This post was published by

2 Comments on "Highlights of the Presentation by Michael E. Kerr, MD on TOFT (Tissue Organization Field Theory): Relevance to Cancer and to Bowen Theory"

  • Leslie Ann Fox’s excellent summary of the key points made by Michael E. Kerr points to the fundamental premise of systems theory: that the individual (molecule, cell, person) cannot be understood apart from the larger systems in which it functions. For the human, these are the systems of our physiology, the family, society, and natural world. The larger systems regulate the behavior of the subsystems in complex ways, outside of our awareness until such time as imbalances produce effects that get our attention. I am reminded of Edward Albee’s popular statement: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” This has been applied to the level of the human relationship with Earth as we begin to recognize the multiple impacts of human population and economic growth.

  • Thank you for this cogent and inspiring summary. I have shared it with a number of colleagues. My grandmother studied botany and she used to say that there is no such things a weed, just a plant in the wrong place. So it is with cancer, it seems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *