Modern Medicine

How does a healthy cell become cancerous?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Genetic mutations occur when a gene can no longer do its job, which is to provide the recipe for making our bodies' proteins. Usually, our DNA toughs it out and fixes itself. However, when our genetic code can't fix itself, it leaves us susceptible to genetic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

    Healthy cells become cancerous when their genetic information is damaged or destroyed. That process happens through the accumulation of about six mutations, or changes to the genes. Mutations can occur due to environmental factors, heredity or simply because of chance. Environmental mutations may be the result of things like carcinogens in cigarette smoke or the sun's ultraviolet rays. A hereditary disposition to cancer may be passed from parent to child. And some mutations are luck of the draw, because mistakes can occur during the normal process of cell division. Each time a cell divides, the genetic code must be copied exactly; these divisions occur several dozen times, and sometimes errors occur.

    For example, oncogenes tell a cell when to multiply. In older adults, this is typically only used to replace dead cells or repair an injury. But if the oncogenes go out of control, they can cause cells to multiply at a much faster rate. As well, there are genes that exist to suppress tumors and others that repair damaged genes. If any of these genes undergoes a mutation, cancer can begin to develop Cancer Research UK.

    Many of the environmental causes of cancer (i.e. sunburns, cigarettes, etc.) are avoidable given proper education and action. But hereditary mutations should be closely monitored by individuals. For example, a woman has a somewhat higher likelihood of developing certain types of breast cancer if her family has a history of them; the same applies to men and prostate cancer National Cancer Institute.

    That's not to say that every genetic mutation is necessarily as destructive as cancer or Alzheimer's. Some mutations, like one observed in a German toddler whose genes allow extraordinary muscle development, can offer clues to scientists who are exploring potential cures for other diseases MSNBC.

    More answers from Discovery Channel »



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