What Causes Cancer?

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Cancer stems from the transformation and mutation of cells. Learn about carcinogens and find examples of carcinogens, and understand the main steps of cancer formation: initiation, promotion, and progression. Updated: 09/27/2021

The Transformation of Cells

Campaign managers of all sorts, be it marketing or political, love to initiate, promote, and watch their campaigns progress. It's exciting and it's a thrill to many in those fields. But when the initiation, promotion, and progression have to do with disease, namely cancer, it's anything but exciting or thrilling. It can be devastating. Let's explore how cancer begins in the first place.

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  • 0:06 The Transformation of Cells
  • 0:34 Examples of Carcinogens
  • 0:56 What is Initiation?
  • 2:12 What is Promotion?
  • 3:42 What is Progression?
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Examples of Carcinogens

A wide variety of carcinogens, or substances that cause the formation of cancer, exist in the world. These include

  • Radiation that breaks apart cellular DNA
  • Toxins and poisons, including chemotherapeutic drugs
  • Viruses
  • Lifestyle choices such as the food you eat, alcohol, or smoking

And so forth down the line.

What Is Initiation?

In a general sense, a carcinogen induces the first step in the formation of cancer, known as initiation. Again, during initiation, something causes irreversible damage to the DNA of a cell. Damaging the DNA of the cell would be like damaging a car's onboard computer system. If that happens, everything goes haywire and the car starts doing all sorts of weird things it's not supposed to do.

The damage to the DNA of the cell must be non-lethal, however! If the DNA is so completely fried that the cell blows up, then it can't reproduce and therefore cannot cause cancer. However, the damage to the DNA must be irreparable; otherwise the cell becomes 'normal' again and therefore would not be predisposed to the formation of cancer. In essence, an initiated cell becomes sort of immortal thanks to a carcinogen messing around with and mutating genes, called proto-oncogenes, into oncogenes, which are the genes that may cause cancer.

What is Promotion?

What's more is the damage done to the DNA of future cancer cells is and must be heritable - meaning daughter cells must carry this mutation as well in order for the mutation to become fixed or permanent; otherwise the initiated cell is harmless to the body. Just like your father and mother would like to pass on their life lessons or special trinkets to you, so too would potential cancer cells like to pass on bad genes that would help the cancer cells kill you. How nice!

In order for these potentially cancerous daughter cells to be born, at least one division of the initiated cell needs to occur. Therefore, initiation must be followed up with promotion, which is when initiated cells are stimulated to undergo mitosis or proliferation.

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