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Why some cancers develop instantly

7th January 2011

British scientists look to have solved the mystery of “instant cancers.”

The team from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge has been focussing on tumours that seem to appear out of nowhere, where a single “explosion” in a cell can cause as much damage to the DNA as decades of hard living.

The findings, made from a study of genetic flaws in 750 tumours, contradict the existing theory that cancer is the consequence of thousands of mutations that build up over a lifetime.

Researcher Dr Peter Campbell said: “Many cancers will take years, decades, to develop. But we also know that in some patients cancers seem to appear much more quickly than that.

“We have examples of people who had a totally normal mammogram or other x-ray and within a few months they develop a nasty aggressive cancer and it may be that a single catastrophic event shortened the development.”

In most cases, the damage seen to the chromosomes fitted with the conventional picture of cancer creeping up over many years.

But the findings published in the journal Cell shows that at least one tumour in 40 did not fit the standard pattern, with damage appearing rapidly.

Dr Campbell said the team was astounded by the results of the study, which is part of project to chart the genetic flaws in different types of cancer.

Researchers remain uncertain what triggers the damage but suspect x-rays and sunburn, though by understanding its cause they may learn how to prevent that kind of cancer occurring.

 

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