The somatic mutation theory of cancer: growing problems with the paradigm?

Bioessays. 2004 Oct;26(10):1097-107. doi: 10.1002/bies.20087.


The somatic mutation theory has been the prevailing paradigm in cancer research for the last 50 years. Its premises are: (1) cancer is derived from a single somatic cell that has accumulated multiple DNA mutations, (2) the default state of cell proliferation in metazoa is quiescence, and (3) cancer is a disease of cell proliferation caused by mutations in genes that control proliferation and the cell cycle. From this compelling simplicity, an increasingly complicated picture has emerged as more than 100 oncogenes and 30 tumor suppressor genes have been identified. To accommodate this complexity, additional ad hoc explanations have been postulated. After a critical review of the data gathered from this perspective, an alternative research program has been proposed. It is based on the tissue organization field theory, the premises of which are that carcinogenesis represents a problem of tissue organization, comparable to organogenesis, and that proliferation is the default state of all cells. The merits of these competing theories are evaluated herein.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Division
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Humans
  • Hybrid Cells
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutation*
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Oncogenes