A gene is a segment of DNA. Each cell in the body has about 20,000 genes, which determine what characteristics a person inherit from their parents and relatives. They are also responsible for producing specific proteins for the cell to function. In short, genes determine how the human body functions.
It is precisely during the functioning and changes of the genes that some type of cancer could develop. That is why it is called a “genetic” disease. This is pretty common, as more than 18 million people worldwide suffer from some type of cancer. So, is there a cancer gene? Why is it common for several members of a family to suffer from this disease?
First of all, it is necessary to understand how cancer develops in the human body, and for this, you need to go to the cells. The body creates new cells every day to replace old or damaged ones. The balance is perfect. Indeed, when the body is healthy, it does not create more cells than it needs. However, when cancer appears it is because the cells start dividing without control.
When cells divide out of control two things happen: first, damaged or old cells do not die, and second, cells begin to cover the body tissues, then solid tumors appear in different organs of the body. In brief, when a cell does not fulfil its life cycle and is reproducing abnormally, it is considered a cancer cell.
When these malignant cells cover an organ, that is when the person has cancer. Additionally, when we do not act in a fast manner, cancer cells can begin to invade other organs by traveling through the blood or lymphatic system.
This whole process happens when a gene behaves abnormally and changes the way cells are born and die. Moreover, this specific gene can be inherited. Therefore, several members of a family can suffer from the same type of cancer. This is also known as a “hereditary cancer”. However, in some cases the disease is caused by bad habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol or an unhealthy lifestyle.
Because this disease affects so many people, science has dedicated itself to studying it in depth. That is why it is now possible to know if a person has “the cancer gene”.
Cancer may be genetic
The story of the discovery of the “cancer gene” begins in 1866, when French neuroscientist Paul Broca, began tracing breast cancer in his wife’s family history. He found that three generations of women in the same family suffered and died from the same disease. He then found a pattern of breast cancer.
However, the scientist could not know if genes played a role in this disease because there was not enough technology to study it. It was not until 1990 that scientists found the first “cancer gene” or BRCA1 gene.
The body has a number of mechanisms, which control how cells divide. One of these mechanisms is the BRCA1 gene. This acronym stands for “breast cancer susceptibility gene 1”. This gene is one of those that are responsible for suppressing tumors in the human body and controlling the life cycle of cells.
If there is a damaged gene, BRCA1 helps repair it. It prevents cells from dividing until the gene is repaired. Each person has two copies of the BRCA1 gene. One from each parent, which is a good thing because only one working copy is needed to protect the body from creating tumors.
In short, the BRCA1 gene (or any gene) has thousands of variations and some of these variations are what cause the cells to not function properly. When a cell with the damaged BRCA1 gene begins to behave differently, the likelihood of developing cancer begins to increase.
The science behind the cancer gene
Since the BRCA1 gene was discovered and pinpointed by science, it became possible to measure how likely every person in the world is to develop a cancer by genetics, especially cancers such as breast, ovarian or colon cancer. In addition, there are now certain conditions that have been scientifically proven to link a person to the “cancer gene”.
For example, the chance of cancer is higher if a family in which members have had a rare or uncommon type of cancer, if children under age 20 have had cancer, if a close family member has had breast or ovarian cancer, if the cancer occurs on both sides of the body when the organs are paired (kidneys, breasts, eyes), or if it occurs in many generations in a row (grandparent, parent, child).
Breast and ovarian cancer, in particular, are most often caused by the BRCA1 gene mutation in women. This can also lead to other types of cancer such as fallopian tube cancer, peritoneal cancer or in men, pancreatic or prostate cancer. Moreover, science has found another gene, BRCA2, which increases the risk of developing the disease if the gene has a mutation and does not work the right way.
Then, women who have a family history of ovarian cancer can receive genetic counseling to find out what is their percentage of risk to develop it.
In addition to the possibility of removing the organs where the cancer is growing, it is possible to take medicines that help cells repair these damaged genes. These drugs are called PARP. It is a targeted therapy, especially for those who know they have the “cancer gene”.
However, few people take these medicines, although many people could potentially benefit from them.
Thus, we can say that all humans may develop a type of cancer, but there are some people who are more likely to. Thanks to science it is now possible to detect this probability and most importantly, it is possible to take action to prevent this disease, which affects millions of people worldwide every year.