Science Questions

Why does cancer have multiple causes?

Wed, 14th Mar 2012

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Question

sheldon asked:

Why are there so many different causes for cancer? Most diseases only have one or two causes. Is it all down to damaged DNA?

Answer

As we heard from Professor Swanton earlier, at its heart cancer is a disease driven by faulty genes - either faults that lead to genes being switched on that drive cells to grow and spread, or that lead to protective genes being switched off.

In fact, one of the most potent causes of gene damage is reactive oxygen molecules produced by our own cells as they make energy. We can also inherit gene faults that make our cells more likely to pick up damage or fail to repair it properly. Chemicals in tobacco, our diet and environment can also cause damage, as can UV light. And certain viruses - such as the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer - can also hijack the genetic programme of cells and make them grow out of control.

Different cancer types often have different risk factors - for example, UV light from the sun or sunbeds damages DNA in skin cells and can lead to skin cancer, but it canít penetrate inside the body to cause cancer internally.  So while the fundamental root of all cancers is the same - cells growing out of control - individual cancers may be caused by different factors, and usually by a combination of many different things that it may be impossible to separate out on an individual basis.

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sheldon asked the Naked Scientists: Why are there so many different causes for cancer? Most diseases only have one or two causes. Is it all down to damaged DNA? What do you think? sheldon, Thu, 8th Sep 2011

In short: yes!

Cancer cells are in fact normal body cells that have been "immortalized".

To cause this immortalization, changes in DNA are necessary. There are lots of DNA alteration that can lead to this change from normal cell to cancer cell.
Similarly, there are lots of things that alter your DNA in various ways, like UV-radiation, cigarette smoke, infection with Eppstein-Barr virus.

But in the end, all these different causes have the same effect: DNA damage. Nizzle, Wed, 28th Sep 2011

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