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How cancer starts

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Cancer is typically seen as a disease that is more likely to affect the elderly—and now scientists have figured out why.

Cancerous cells don’t get the memo to die—and they somehow bypass inflammatory processes that would usually kill them off.

But how do they do it?  Researchers at the Salk Institute have discovered that cancer is a complicated process that involves three things—chromosomes known as telomeres, mitochondria, the cell’s ‘powerhouse’, and inflammation.

Usually these are studied separately, but when the Salk researchers looked at them together, they found the genesis of cancer.

As we get older, the ends of our telomeres shorten and, when they do, they start communicating with mitochondria.  This kickstarts a complex series of signalling pathways that causes an inflammatory response that destroys cells that otherwise could become cancerous.

But some cells avoid death by inflammation—known by biologists as ‘crisis’—and start the process of cancer, the researchers discovered.  “Cancer formation is not a simple process.  It is a multistep process that requires many alterations and changes throughout the cell,” said Joe Nassour, one of the researchers.

The research marks several firsts: the Salk team is the first to recognise that telomeres communicate with mitochondria, and they have also delineated how cancer starts.

Understanding how to stop cancer cells avoid inflammation could be the first step towards a better therapy and inspire ways to prevent the disease in the first place, but the discoveries also impact on the ageing process and eventually could extend life expectancy.

Nature, 2023; doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-05710-8
Article Topics: Cancer
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