Cancer is fundamentally a disease of regulation of tissue growth. In order for a normal cell to transform into a cancer cell, genes which regulate cell growth and differentiation must be altered. Genetic changes can occur at many levels, from gain or loss of entire chromosomes to a mutation affecting a single DNA nucleotide. There are two broad categories of genes which are affected by these changes. Oncogenes may be normal genes which are expressed at inappropriately high levels, or altered genes which have novel properties. In either case, expression of these genes promotes the malignant phenotype of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are genes which inhibit cell division, survival, or other properties of cancer cells. Tumor suppressor genes are often disabled by cancer-promoting genetic changes. Typically, changes in many genes are required to transform a normal cell into a cancer cell.
There is a diverse classification scheme for the various genomic changes which may contribute to the generation of cancer cells. Most of these changes are mutations, or changes in the nucleotide sequence of genomic DNA. Aneuploidy, the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes, is one genomic change which is not a mutation, and may involve either gain or loss of one or more chromosomes through errors in mitosis.
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 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 such an event may also result in the expression of viral oncogenes in the affected cell and its descendants.
Anything which replicates (living cells) will probabilistically suffer from errors (mutations). Unless error correction and prevention is properly carried out, the errors will survive, and might be passed along to daughter cells. Normally, the body safeguards against cancer via numerous methods, such as: apoptosis, helper molecules (some DNA polymerases), possibly senescence, etc. However these error-correction methods often fail in small ways, especially in environments that make errors more likely to arise and propagate. For example, such environments can include the presence of disruptive substances called carcinogens, or periodic injury (physical, heat, etc.), or environments that cells did not evolve to withstand, such as hypoxia (see subsections). Cancer is thus a progressive disease, and these progressive errors slowly accumulate until a cell begins to act contrary to its function in the organism.
The errors which cause cancer are often self-amplifying, eventually compounding at an exponential rate. For example:
- A mutation in the error-correcting machinery of a cell might cause that cell and its children to accumulate errors more rapidly
- A mutation in signaling (endocrine) machinery of the cell can send error-causing signals to nearby cells
- A mutation might cause cells to become neoplastic, causing them to migrate and disrupt more healthy cells
- A mutation may cause the cell to become immortal (see telomeres), causing them to disrupt healthy cells forever
Thus cancer often explodes in something akin to a chain reaction caused by a few errors, which compound into more severe errors. Errors which produce more errors are effectively the root cause of cancer, and also the reason that cancer is so hard to treat: even if there were 10,000,000,000 cancerous cells and one killed all but 10 of those cells, those cells (and other error-prone precancerous cells) could still self-replicate or send error-causing signals to other cells, starting the process over again. This rebellion-like scenario is an undesirable survival of the fittest, where the driving forces of evolution work against the body's design and enforcement of order. In fact, once cancer has begun to develop, this same force continues to drive the progression of cancer towards more invasive stages, and is called clonal evolution.
Research about cancer causes often falls into the following categories:
- Agents (e.g. viruses) and events (e.g. mutations) which cause or facilitate genetic changes in cells destined to become cancer.
- The precise nature of the genetic damage, and the genes which are affected by it.
- The consequences of those genetic changes on the biology of the cell, both in generating the defining properties of a cancer cell, and in facilitating additional genetic events which lead to further progression of the cancer.