Cancer sneakier than scientists suspected

(CBS) -- Cancer may be a lot more devious than researchers have realized. That's the word from a New York Times report that points to new cancer-contributing factors that may one day change how the disease is researched and treated.

For more than a decade, researchers were guided by principles outlined in a 2000 paper in the journal, Cell, called "The Hallmarks of Cancer." That paper detailed how a single cell evolved into a malignant tumor through a series of mutations that essentially allowed cancer to spread in a free-for-all to nearby tissue.

But new research may give some scientists pause. First, it was thought that only 2 percent of the entire human genome harbored cancer-causing genes. Now researchers think there are oncogenes lurking within the other 98 percent of the DNA which has long been considered "junk DNA."

That's not all. Scientists have also discovered that most of the protein-coding cells, the cogs of cancer, are tiny microorganisms living in the body that may be involved with colon, stomach, and esophagus cancers. The last of these theories pings microRNA as the culprit. Thought to be insignificant in the DNA-coding process, microRNA may sneakily mess with DNA coded for a healthy cell by intercepting and changing it entirely, tricking the cell it into turning cancerous.

Confused? You're not the only one.

But findings like these, presented at this past spring's American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Orlando, Fla., tweak the prevailing theories on how cancer spreads, which can signal a need for new treatments. Especially because so little is known about some of these new theories, including the microbes - which contain individual sets of DNA themselves - and seem to communicate with cells throughout the body.

"It's astonishing, really. There they are, sitting around and doing stuff, and most of it we don't really know or understand," Dr. Jeremy K. Nicholson, head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, told the New York Times.

Dr. Harold Vamus, director of the National Cancer Institute, thinks cancer researchers should focus on these unexplained mysteries, since they may unlock cancer's secrets.

"In our rush to do the things that are really obvious to do, we're forgetting to pay attention to many unexplained phenomena," he told the Times.

More than 1.5 million American men and women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer this year, while another 570,000 die from the disease.


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