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Genetics and Cancer

Introduction to Genetics

    Genetics is the study of genes or segments of genetic material called DNA. Genes carry instructions for every cell in the body to produce proteins. These proteins determine physical characteristics as well as body processes needed for survival. For example, genes determine eye color, height, and response to infection.

    Problems may arise when a mutation, a type of genetic mistake, occurs in a gene. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states, "More than 4,000 diseases are thought to stem from mutated genes inherited from one's mother and/or father." To combat genetic disorders, the NIH launched an international effort to map human genes. Knowledge from this project is expected to identify genetic causes of disease and eventually help find preventative steps and cures. This effort is called the Human Genome Project and has helped place genetics on the cutting edge of science.

    Many Utahns come from extended families, have detailed genealogy work already completed, and know who and where relatives are. This helps researchers who are concerned with patterns of disease through genetic inheritance. Utahns are better educated, have fewer disease risk factors and are generally in better health that the rest of the nation.

    What Genes have to do with Cancer

      Normally, cells grow and divide in an orderly manner, replacing damaged and worn-out cells. Sometimes cells receive the wrong message from their DNA and begin to divide rapidly and form masses known as tumors. Some tumors continue to grow, interfere with body functions and may need to be removed. However, if they do not spread to other parts of the body, they are benign and not considered cancerous. If a tumor spreads, or has the potential to spread, to other parts of the body, it is considered malignant and therefore, cancerous.

      Mistakes, called mutations, are often made when DNA is read and copied. The cell usually repairs these mutations. However, if a cell does not identify a mutation and fix it, the mutation can alter the function of the cell or have no effect at all. It is believed that carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) can harm DNA and cause more mutations. These mutations can stimulate cell growth and cause cancerous tumors.

      This accounts for families with a high rate of cancer. These are the mutations our group is concerned about. It is believed that over 2,000 diseases run in families. Often diseases that run in families develop unusually early in a person's life and are present in more than one person among first and second-degree relatives.

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