Gene mutations are a common cause of cancer. As Professor Kevin Dalby of UT Austin explains, not all mutations are harmful, but there are types of genetic mutations that can and often do cause cancer.
It is essential to understand the different types of genetic mutations, how they occur, and which types of cancer are most often linked to genetic mutations.
Genetic mutations can be classified into two main categories. They are acquired and inherited.
Acquired mutations occur over time in a person’s life, either due to environment, behavior, or exposure to certain things. This type of mutation is the most common cause of cancer.
Some contributing factors to acquired mutations could be a virus, ultraviolet radiation, age, and tobacco and alcohol consumption. These mutations occur over time from excessive exposure, which could lead to the formation of a tumor in a cell in the breast or colon, for example.
Cancer caused by an acquired mutation is sometimes called sporadic cancer. They are not found in every cell of a body and are not passed from parent to child.
The other type of mutation is called hereditary or germline mutations. It initially occurs in an egg or sperm and then is passed on to a child upon conception.
When this happens, the mutation will then be copied into all the cells of the embryo. The mutation can be passed down from generation to generation because it affects a person’s reproductive cells.
Cancer caused by this type of mutation is called hereditary cancer and accounts for between 5% and 20% of all types of cancer.
When mutations are harmful
Mutations are not uncommon. Some are beneficial. What determines whether a genetic mutation is harmful is where it occurs.
Most of the time, the human body can correct genetic mutations. This is why single mutations often do not cause cancer. Instead, cancer most often arises from more than one mutation during a person’s lifetime.
Again, this is an important reason why older people generally get more cancer than their younger counterparts because the mutations get worse over time.
Gene mutations that cause cancer
There are broad categories of genes that contribute to the development of cancer. One group is called tumor suppressors. They are classified as protective genes, but can ultimately limit cell growth by repairing mismatched DNA or helping to control when a particular cell dies.
This is why when this type of gene ends up mutating; cells can grow out of control, often resulting in tumor formation.
Oncogenes take healthy cells and make them cancerous. These genetic mutations are not inherited and fall into two common types. HER2 is found in ovarian and breast cancer cells. RAS genes contribute to both cell death and cell growth.
Finally, as Dr. Kevin Dalby explains, DNA repair genes are responsible for correcting errors in the body’s copies of DNA. When there is a mutation here, mistakes can happen and cancer can form.
About Dr. Kevin Dalby
Dr. Kevin Dalby is a professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry and works on cancer drug discovery. At the University of Texas College of Pharmacy, he examines the mechanisms of nature and cancer to develop new treatments and to teach and motivate students to conduct research. Dalby is optimistic about the future of cancer treatments.
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