Cancers are caused by a series of mutations. Each mutation alters the behavior of the cell somewhat.

Cancer is fundamentally a disease of failure of regulation of tissue growth. In order for a normal cell to transform into a cancer cell, the genes which regulate cell growth and differentiation must be altered.

The affected genes are divided into two broad categories. Oncogenes are genes which promote cell growth and reproduction. Tumor suppressor genes are genes which inhibit cell division and survival. Malignant transformation can occur through the formation of novel oncogenes, the inappropriate over-expression of normal oncogenes, or by the under-expression or disabling of tumor suppressor genes. Typically, changes in many genes are required to transform a normal cell into a cancer cell.

Genetic changes can occur at different levels and by different mechanisms. The gain or loss of an entire chromosome can occur through errors in mitosis. More common are mutations, which are changes in the nucleotide sequence of genomic DNA.

Large-scale mutations involve the deletion or gain of a portion of a chromosome. Genomic amplification occurs when a cell gains many copies (often 20 or more) of a small chromosomal locus, usually containing one or more oncogenes and adjacent genetic material. Translocation occurs when two separate chromosomal regions become abnormally fused, often at a characteristic location. A well-known example of this is the Philadelphia chromosome, or translocation of chromosomes 9 and 22, which occurs in chronic myelogenous leukemia, and results in production of the BCR-abl fusion protein, an oncogenic tyrosine kinase.

Small-scale mutations include point mutations, deletions, and insertions, which may occur in the promoter region of a gene and affect its expression, or may occur in the gene’s coding sequence and alter the function or stability of its protein product. Disruption of a single gene may also result from integration of genomic material from a DNA virus or retrovirus, and resulting in the expression of viral oncogenes in the affected cell and its descendants.

Replication of the enormous amount of data contained within the DNA of living cells will probabilistically result in some errors (mutations). Complex error correction and prevention is built into the process, and safeguards the cell against cancer. If significant error occurs, the damaged cell can “self-destruct” through programmed cell death, termed apoptosis. If the error control processes fail, then the mutations will survive and be passed along to daughter cells.

Some environments make errors more likely to arise and propagate. Such environments can include the presence of disruptive substances called carcinogens, repeated physical injury, heat, ionising radiation, or hypoxia

The errors which cause cancer are self-amplifying and compounding, for example:

1. A mutation in the error-correcting machinery of a cell might cause that cell and its children to accumulate errors more rapidly.

2. A further mutation in an oncogene might cause the cell to reproduce more rapidly and more frequently than its normal counterparts.

3. A further mutation may cause loss of a tumour suppressor gene, disrupting the apoptosis signalling pathway and resulting in the cell becoming immortal.

4. A further mutation in signaling machinery of the cell might send error-causing signals to nearby cells.

The transformation of normal cell into cancer is akin to a chain reaction caused by initial errors, which compound into more severe errors, each progressively allowing the cell to escape the controls that limit normal tissue growth. This rebellion-like scenario becomes an undesirable survival of the fittest, where the driving forces of evolution work against the body’s design and enforcement of order. Once cancer has begun to develop, this ongoing process, termed clonal evolution drives progression towards more invasive stages. image:Cancers are caused by a series of mutations. Each mutation alters the behavior of the cell somewhat.