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Cancer Genetics: The Relationship Between Genes and Cancer

March 3, 2022

There’s an important relationship between genetics and cancer, even if we don’t understand the exact nature of the relationship. The ability of genes to cause cancer probably comes to mind when considering the correlation of cancer genetics. Still, most people aren’t familiar with using genes to treat cancer. It’s essential to understand how a healthy cell becomes a cancerous one. After understanding this process, it becomes clearer how we can use genes to treat cancer in the body.

Is Cancer Hereditary?

Genetic mutation makes up about 5 to 10 percent of all cancer cases, increasing your risk of getting cancer. Each of our chromosomes comprises thousands of genes, otherwise known as coded segments of DNA. A genetic mutation occurs when the DNA sequence changes, causing it to stop functioning correctly. 

The odds of inheriting a genetic mutation are 50/50 since we inherit one gene from our mother and father. A parent can pass on the genetic mutation without ever developing cancer. Although the mutation increases your risk, it doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. Knowing if you have the genetic mutation allows you to take preventative action to decrease your risk of genetic cancer through screenings and other risk-reduction measures. 

How Does Cancer Gene Mutation Occur?

Understanding how a gene is created is necessary to understand how a cancer genetic mutation occurs. A gene begins with a base, and as one base connects with another, it develops a sequence of bases that determine the gene’s function. As all of the necessary bases unite, they make up the DNA of that particular gene. 

Although there may be thousands of bases in one gene, a mutation of just one base can significantly alter the functionality of that gene. Each of our cells is made up of these genes. Therefore, a small mutation in one gene can affect how that cell functions. The mutated gene may stop the cell from functioning, forcing it to lay dormant.

In other cases, the proteins produced by the affected gene may cause the cell to function abnormally. The malfunctioning cell won’t always affect the individual. However, in many cases, just one mutated gene may be enough to cause a person to develop a genetic disease. One example is sickle cell anemia.

How Can Gene Mutation Cause Cancer?

There’s no simple answer. In most cases, one mutated gene isn’t enough to cause a cell to become cancerous. However, if the body continues to develop mutated cells throughout an individual’s lifetime, that may contribute to cancerous disease. 

Just like we may develop cancer genes, our bodies also develop tumor suppressor genes, which fight off cancer. These genes inhibit cancer cell growth by regulating cell division and repairing abnormal cancer DNA. However, even a tumor suppressor gene may mutate. That gene does the opposite of its intent and develops into a tumor when this occurs. 

Testing for Inherited Cancers

It’s beneficial to meet with a genetic counselor if you or a family member has cancer. They will help you decide which tests are right for you to interpret results correctly. Genetic tests typically require a blood or saliva sample where a special lab analysis can detect DNA changes that suggest a mutation. Testing allows you to decrease your risk of developing cancer by first testing the family member who has it. However, genetic tests don’t always provide a yes or no answer, which is another reason why it’s essential to see a genetic counselor. 

Using Genetics to Identify and Treat Cancer

Now that we know that the genes that cause cancer are merely mutated genes, we can use this information to diagnose cancer earlier. This is done by looking for mutated genes in the body. The number of mutated genes can tell how far cancer has advanced, helping doctors determine the best course of treatment.

This can determine the cancer treatment’s effectiveness. This is done by counting the number of cancer genes in the body at the start of the treatment process and conducting a second count after administering treatment. A lower count of mutated cells indicates that the cancer treatment produces the intended effects. If the number of mutated genes has grown, the treatment was ineffective.

Specific genetic mutations can help doctors predict how cancer patients respond to treatment. Patients who have acute myeloid leukemia also have an FLT3 gene mutation. Because these patients are less likely to respond to treatment than patients who don’t possess the FLT3 mutation, they may need to undergo more intensive types of treatment, such as stem-cell therapy.

Acute myeloid leukemia patients with an NPM1 gene mutation are at the other end of the spectrum. Doctors have found that these patients respond exceptionally well to traditional treatments. Patients with this mutation have a much better prognosis.

Gene Therapy Treatments

Gene therapy treatments offer hope for cancer patients in two ways. Some gene therapy drugs target the mutated genes to eliminate cancerous cells. Other gene therapy drugs activate healthy genes that will combat the mutated genes. The type of drug used will depend on the severity and type of the patient’s cancer. 

As cancer research progresses, new gene therapy drugs will be created to combat other types of cancer. Since gene mutations are the underlying cause of cancer, gene therapy drugs may be the best treatment method in many instances.

Researchers are only beginning to unlock the mysteries of cancer genetics. As more studies are conducted in genetic cancer research, we’ll likely uncover even more effective ways of treating cancerous cells in the body. This research will lead to new cancer treatments that are more effective and produce fewer adverse side effects.

Nashville Oncology delivers high-quality medical oncology care and leading-edge clinical pathways. We’re committed to the patient experience and value-based care, respecting the individual needs of our patients and their families. Contact us to learn more about our comprehensive and personalized oncology care.