University of Colorado Cancer Center Paper Refutes the Idea that Mutations Cause Cancer

James DeGregori, PhD, deputy director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center

Preventing cancer depends on maintaining a tissue ecosystem that favors healthy cells.

What causes cancer? Smoking, certainly, and also things like sun and chemical exposure. Cancer risk also increases with some genetic predispositions and in old age. One thread connecting these risks is genetic mutations in the cells of our bodies – smoking and UV exposure increase the rate of DNA damage and with each replication of damaged DNA comes the chance of picking up a random mutation that can kickstart cancer. And the longer we live, the more chance that awful luck will result in one of these random, cancer-causing mutations. This is the mutation accumulation theory of oncogenesis: “Cancers are caused by mutations that may be inherited, induced by environmental factors, or result from DNA replication error,” write John Hopkins University biostatisticians Tomasetti, Li and Vogelstein in the March 24, 2017 issue of the journal Science.

But there is a parallel thread through these causes of cancer that reaches a much different endpoint. This is the thread of the microenvironment – the ecosystem of the body’s tissues. Age and exposures like smoking and UV radiation damage the body’s tissues. Writing today in the journal Cancer Research, James DeGregori, PhD, deputy director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center offers evidence that it is forces of evolution driven by natural selection acting in the ecosystem of the body that, in the presence of tissue damage, allow cells with dangerous mutations to thrive. This evolutionary theory of cancer points out that cells containing dangerous mutations exist all the time, but are commonly…

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