The Evolution of a Lung Cancer


Excerpts from "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

"By the early 1990s, cancer biologists could begin to model the genesis of cancer in terms of molecular changes in genes. To understand that model, let us begin with a normal cell, say a lung cell that resides in the left lung of a forty-year old fire-safety-equipment installer. One morning in 1968, a minute sliver of asbestos from his equipment wafts through the air and lodges in the vicinity of that cell. His body reacts to the sliver with an inflammation. The cells around the sliver begin to divide furiously, like a minuscule wound trying to heal, and a small clump of cells derived from the original cell arises at the site.

In one cell in that clump an accidental mutation occurs in the ras gene. The mutation creates an activated version of ras. The cell containing the mutant gene is driven to grow more swiftly than its neighbors and creates a clump within the original clump of cells. It is not yet a cancer cell, but a cell in which uncontrolled cell division has partly been unleashed - cancer's primordial ancestor.

A decade passes. The small collection of ras-mutant cells continues to proliferate, unnoticed, in the far periphery of the lung. The man smokes cigarettes, and a carcinogenic chemical in tar reaches the periphery of the lung and collides with the clump of ras-mutated cells. A cell in this clump acquits a second mutation in its genes, activating a second oncogene.

Another decade passes. Yet another cell in that secondary mass of cells is caught in the path of an errant X-ray and acquires yet another mutation, this time inactivating a tumor suppressor gene. This mutation has little effect since the cell possesses a second copy of that gene. But in the next year, another mutation inactivates the second copy of the tumor suppressor gene, creating a cell that possesses two activated oncogenes and an inactive tumor suppressor gene.

Now a fatal march is on; an unraveling begins. The cells, now with four mutations, begin to outgrow their brethren. As the cells grow, they acquire additional mutations and they active pathways, resulting in cells even further adapted for growth and survival. One mutation in the tumor allows it to incite blood vessels to grow; another mutation within this blood-nourished tumor allows the tumor to survive even in areas of the body with low oxygen.

Mutant cells beget cells. A gene that increases the mobility of the cells is activated in a cell. This cell, having acquired motility, can migrate through the lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. A descendant of this mobile cancer cell acquires the capacity to survive in the bone. This cell, having migrated through the blood, reaches the outer edge of the pelvis, where it begins yet another cycle of survival, selection, and colonization. It represents the first metastasis of a tumor that originated in the lung."