The complexity and diversity of cancer-specific phenotypes, including de-differentiation, invasiveness, metastasis, abnormal morphology and metabolism, genetic instability and progression to malignancy, have so far eluded explanation by a simple, coherent hypothesis. However, an adaptation of Metabolic Control Analysis supports the 100-year-old hypothesis that aneuploidy, an abnormal number of chromosomes, is the cause of cancer. The results demonstrate the currently counter-intuitive principle that it is the fraction of the genome undergoing differential expression, not the magnitude of the differential expression, that controls phenotypic transformation. Transforming the robust normal phenotype into cancer requires a twofold increase in the expression of thousands of normal gene products. The massive change in gene dose produces highly non-linear (i.e. qualitative) changes in the physiology and metabolism of cells and tissues. Since aneuploidy disrupts the natural balance of mitosis proteins, it also explains the notorious genetic instability of cancer cells as a consequence of the perpetual regrouping of chromosomes. In view of this and the existence of non-cancerous aneuploidy, we propose that cancer is the phenotype of cells above a certain threshold of aneuploidy. This threshold is reached either by the gradual, stepwise increase in the level of aneuploidy as a consequence of the autocatalysed genetic instability of aneuploid cells or by tetraploidization followed by a gradual loss of chromosomes. Thus the initiation step of carcinogenesis produces aneuploidy below the threshold for cancer, and the promotion step increases the level of aneuploidy above this threshold. We conclude that aneuploidy offers a simple and coherent explanation for all the cancer-specific phenotypes. Accordingly, the gross biochemical abnormalities, abnormal cellular size and morphology, the appearance of tumour-associated antigens, the high levels of secreted proteins responsible for invasiveness and loss of contact inhibition, and even the daunting genetic instability that enables cancer cells to evade chemotherapy, are all the natural consequence of the massive over- and under-expression of proteins.
- genetic instability
- The Biochemical Society, London © 1999