← Previous  Next →
8. Clue to the Cause - Genetic Signatures

Many scientists think the cause of cancer may be found by cataloguing its "genetic signatures" - meaning the uniquely mutated genes in the tissue of different cancer types. Spearheading this effort is a program called the Cancer Genome Atlas.

Genetic mutation led this rose to produce flowers of different colors.Why Genes Hold the Key
Almost every human ailment has something to do with our genes. So it stands to reason that in-depth analysis of our genetic makeup -- made possible by the massive power of today's computers -- will help science better understand the cause of cancer.

Why is Mutation So Important?
The genes that help to transform normal cells into cancer cells are genes that are "mutated." If we look at the tissue from the resulting cancer, the mutated genes will still be there, as if they left a fingerprint or signature. Once science can associate specific mutated genes with specific cancers (for example, the HER-2 gene is closely associated with breast cancer), it can develop new strategies for killing cancer cells.

When Does Gene Mutation Happen?
Good News: only a few mutated genes are hereditary, meaning passed down from generation to generation. Instead, most mutations occur during your lifetime (and cannot be passed down to your kids). The mutations can be caused by: (1) errors during cell division, (2) exposure to ultraviolet rays, or (3) exposure to cancer-causing substances like those found in cigarettes.

The Cancer Geome Atlas is taking thousands of tissue samples from major cancers and trying to see which mutated genes keep reappearing.