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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Overview

Cancer is a diverse class of diseases which differ widely in their causes and biology. The common thread in all known cancers is the acquisition of abnormalities in the genetic material of the cancer cell and its progeny. Research into the pathogenesis of cancer can be divided into three broad areas of focus. The first area of research focuses on the agents and events which cause or facilitate genetic changes in cells destined to become cancer. Second, it is important to uncover the precise nature of the genetic damage, and the genes which are affected by it. The third focus is on 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, leading to further progression of the cancer.

Causes

Chemical Carcinogens

Cancer pathogenesis is traceable back to DNA mutations that impact cell growth and metastasis. Substances that cause DNA mutations are known as mutagens, and mutagens that cause cancers are known as carcinogens. Particular substances have been linked to specific types of cancer. Tobacco smoking is associated with lung cancer and bladder cancer. Prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers is associated with mesothelioma.

Many mutagens are also carcinogens, but some carcinogens are not mutagens. Alcohol is an example of a chemical carcinogen that is not a mutagen. Such chemicals are thought to promote cancers through their stimulating effect on the rate of cell mitosis. Faster rates of mitosis leaves less time for repair enzymes to repair damaged DNA during DNA replication, increasing the likelihood of a genetic mistake. A mistake made during mitosis can lead to the daughter cells receiving the wrong number of chromosomes (see aneuploidy above).

The incidence of lung cancer is highly correlated with smoking. Source:NIH.

Decades of research have demonstrated the strong association between tobacco use and cancers of many sites, making it perhaps the most important human carcinogen. Hundreds of epidemiological studies have confirmed this association. Further support comes from the fact that lung cancer death rates in the United States have mirrored smoking patterns, with increases in smoking followed by dramatic increases in lung cancer death rates and, more recently, decreases in smoking followed by decreases in lung cancer death rates in men.

Ionizing Radiation

Sources of ionizing radiation, such as radon gas, can cause cancer. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can lead to melanoma and other skin malignancies.

Infectious Diseases

Furthermore, many cancers originate from a viral infection; this is especially true in animals such as birds, but also in humans, as viruses are responsible for 15% of human cancers worldwide. The main viruses associated with human cancers are human papillomavirus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and human T-lymphotropic virus. Experimental and epidemiological data imply a causative role for viruses and they appear to be the second most important risk factor for cancer development in humans, exceeded only by tobacco usage.[1] The mode of virally-induced tumors can be divided into two, acutely-transforming or slowly-transforming. In acutely transforming viruses, the viral particles carry a gene that encodes for an overactive oncogene called viral-oncogene (v-onc), and the infected cell is transformed as soon as v-onc is expressed. In contrast, in slowly-transforming viruses, the virus genome is inserted, especially as viral genome insertion is an obligatory part of retroviruses, near a proto-oncogene in the host genome. The viral promoter or other transcription regulation elements in turn cause overexpression of that proto-oncogene, which in turn induces uncontrolled cellular proliferation. Because viral genome insertion is not specific to proto-oncogenes and the chance of insertion near that proto-oncogene is low, slowly-transforming viruses have very long tumor latency compared to acutely-transforming viruses, which already carry the viral oncogene.

Hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis B and hepatitis C, can induce a chronic viral infection that leads to liver cancer in 0.47% of hepatitis B patients per year (especially in Asia, less so in North America), and in 1.4% of hepatitis C carriers per year. Liver cirrhosis, whether from chronic viral hepatitis infection or alcoholism, is associated with the development of liver cancer, and the combination of cirrhosis and viral hepatitis presents the highest risk of liver cancer development. Worldwide, liver cancer is one of the most common, and most deadly, cancers due to a huge burden of viral hepatitis transmission and disease.

Advances in cancer research have made a vaccine designed to prevent cancer available. In 2006, the US FDA approved a human papilloma virus vaccine, called Gardasil®. The vaccine protects against four HPV types, which together cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. In March 2007, the US CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) officially recommended that females aged 11-12 receive the vaccine, and indicated that females as young as age 9 and as old as age 26 are also candidates for immunization.

In addition to viruses, researchers have noted a connection between bacteria and certain cancers. The most prominent example is the link between chronic infection of the wall of the stomach with Helicobacter pylori and gastric cancer.[2]

Hormonal Imbalances

Some hormones can act in a similar manner to non-mutagenic carcinogens in that they may stimulate excessive cell growth. A well-established example is the role of hyperestrogenic states in promoting endometrial cancer.

Immune System Dysfunction

HIV is associated with a number of malignancies, including Kaposi's sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and HPV-associated malignancies such as anal cancer and cervical cancer. AIDS-defining illnesses have long included these diagnoses. The increased incidence of malignancies in HIV patients points to the breakdown of immune surveillance as a possible etiology of cancer.[3] Certain other immune deficiency states (e.g. common variable immunodeficiency and IgA deficiency) are also associated with increased risk of malignancy.[4]

Heredity

Most forms of cancer are "sporadic", and have no basis in heredity. There are, however, a number of recognised syndromes of cancer with a hereditary component, often a defective tumor suppressor allele. Famous examples are:

Drug Side Effects

Other Causes

A few types of cancer in non-humans have been found to be caused by the tumor cells themselves. This phenomenon is seen in Sticker's sarcoma, also known as canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT).[5] The closest known analogue to this in humans is individuals who have developed cancer from tumors hiding inside organ transplants.

References

  1. zur Hausen H (1991). "Viruses in human cancers". Science. 254 (5035). PMID.
  2. Peter S, Beglinger C (2007). "Helicobacter pylori and gastric cancer: the causal relationship". Digestion. 75 (1): 25–35. doi:10.1159/000101564. PMID 17429205.
  3. Wood C, Harrington W (2005). "AIDS and associated malignancies". Cell Res. 15 (11–12): 947–52. doi:10.1038/sj.cr.7290372. PMID 16354573.
  4. Mellemkjaer L, Hammarstrom L, Andersen V; et al. (2002). "Cancer risk among patients with IgA deficiency or common variable immunodeficiency and their relatives: a combined Danish and Swedish study". Clin. Exp. Immunol. 130 (3): 495–500. PMID 12452841.
  5. Murgia C, Pritchard JK, Kim SY, Fassati A, Weiss RA (2006). "Clonal origin and evolution of a transmissible cancer". Cell. 126 (3): 477–87. PMID 16901782.




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