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. 2000 Dec;21(6):167-223.
doi: 10.1016/s0098-2997(00)00007-8.

The Molecular Biology of Cancer


The Molecular Biology of Cancer

J S Bertram. Mol Aspects Med. .


The process by which normal cells become progressively transformed to malignancy is now known to require the sequential acquisition of mutations which arise as a consequence of damage to the genome. This damage can be the result of endogenous processes such as errors in replication of DNA, the intrinsic chemical instability of certain DNA bases or from attack by free radicals generated during metabolism. DNA damage can also result from interactions with exogenous agents such as ionizing radiation, UV radiation and chemical carcinogens. Cells have evolved means to repair such damage, but for various reasons errors occur and permanent changes in the genome, mutations, are introduced. Some inactivating mutations occur in genes responsible for maintaining genomic integrity facilitating the acquisition of additional mutations. This review seeks first to identify sources of mutational damage so as to identify the basic causes of human cancer. Through an understanding of cause, prevention may be possible. The evolution of the normal cell to a malignant one involves processes by which genes involved in normal homeostatic mechanisms that control proliferation and cell death suffer mutational damage which results in the activation of genes stimulating proliferation or protection against cell death, the oncogenes, and the inactivation of genes which would normally inhibit proliferation, the tumor suppressor genes. Finally, having overcome normal controls on cell birth and cell death, an aspiring cancer cell faces two new challenges: it must overcome replicative senescence and become immortal and it must obtain adequate supplies of nutrients and oxygen to maintain this high rate of proliferation. This review examines the process of the sequential acquisition of mutations from the prospective of Darwinian evolution. Here, the fittest cell is one that survives to form a new population of genetically distinct cells, the tumor. This review does not attempt to be comprehensive but identifies key genes directly involved in carcinogenesis and demonstrates how mutations in these genes allow cells to circumvent cellular controls. This detailed understanding of the process of carcinogenesis at the molecular level has only been possible because of the advent of modern molecular biology. This new discipline, by precisely identifying the molecular basis of the differences between normal and malignant cells, has created novel opportunities and provided the means to specifically target these modified genes. Whenever possible this review highlights these opportunities and the attempts being made to generate novel, molecular based therapies against cancer. Successful use of these new therapies will rely upon a detailed knowledge of the genetic defects in individual tumors. The review concludes with a discussion of how the use of high throughput molecular arrays will allow the molecular pathologist/therapist to identify these defects and direct specific therapies to specific mutations.

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