Cell Biology and Cancer
“ We now understand a lot about cancer. We know that it results from a series of genetic changes having to do with cell division and growth control and genetic instability, mortality, the suicide mechanism in cells; the ability of the cells to migrate; the ability of the cells to attract to them a blood supply. And so that’s pretty profound that in a few sentences one can summarize a sophisticated, fundamental understanding of what a cancer is.” LELAND HARTWELL
Molecular to Global
A multicellular organism can thrive only when all its cells function in accordance with the rules that govern cell growth and reproduction. Why does a normal cell suddenly become a “rebel,” breaking the rules, dividing recklessly, invading other tissues, usurping resources, and in some cases eventually killing the body in which it lives? To understand how and why cells rebel, we need to understand the normal functions of cell growth and reproduction. From the midnineteenth century on, research in cell biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology has provided astonishingly detailed information about the molecules and processes that allow cells to divide, grow, differentiate, and perform their essential functions. This basic knowledge of cell biology has also led to practical discoveries about the mechanisms of cancer. Specific molecules that control the progression of a cell through the cell cycle regulate cell growth. An understanding of normal cell cycle processes and how those processes go awry provides key information about the mechanisms that trigger cancer. Loss of control of the cell cycle is one of the critical steps in the development of cancer. Although cancer comprises at least 100 different diseases, all cancer cells share one important characteristic: they are abnormal cells in which the processes regulating normal cell division are disrupted. That is, cancer develops from changes that cause normal cells to acquire abnormal functions. These changes are often the result of inherited mutations or are induced by environmental factors such as UV light, X-rays, chemicals, tobacco products, and viruses. All evidence suggests that most cancers are not the result of one single event or factor. Rather, around four to seven events are usually required for a normal cell to evolve through a series of premalignant stages into an invasive cancer. Often many years elapse between the initial event and
R E D I S C OV E R I N G B I O L O GY
the development of cancer. The development of molecular biological techniques may help in the diagnosis of potential cancers in the early stages, long before tumors are visible.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer results from a series of molecular events that fundamentally alter the normal properties of cells. In cancer cells the normal control systems that prevent cell overgrowth and the invasion of other tissues are disabled. These altered cells divide and grow in the presence of signals that normally inhibit cell growth; therefore, they no longer require special signals to induce cell growth and division. As these cells grow they develop new characteristics, including changes in cell structure, decreased cell adhesion, and production of new enzymes. These heritable changes allow the cell and its progeny to divide and grow, even in the presence of normal cells that typically inhibit the growth of nearby cells. Such changes allow the cancer cells to spread and invade other tissues. The abnormalities in cancer cells usually result from mutations in protein-encoding genes that regulate cell division. Over time more genes become mutated. This is often because the genes that make the proteins that normally repair DNA damage are themselves not functioning normally because they are also mutated. Consequently, mutations begin to increase in the cell, causing further abnormalities in that cell and the daughter cells. Some of these mutated...