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To understand how cancer develops and progresses, researchers first need to investigate the biological differences between normal cells and cancer cells. This work focuses on the mechanisms that underlie fundamental processes such as cell growth, the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells, and the spread, or metastasis, of cancer cells.
Knowledge gained from such studies deepens our understanding of cancer and produces insights that could lead to the development of new clinical interventions. For example, studies of cell signaling pathways in normal cells and cancer cells have contributed greatly to our knowledge about the disease, revealing molecular alterations that are shared among different types of cancer and pointing to possible strategies for treatment.
The last few decades of basic research in cancer biology have created a broad base of knowledge that has been critical to progress against the disease. In fact, many advances in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer would not have occurred without the knowledge that has come from investigating basic questions about the biology of cancer.
Scientists today have a growing understanding of the biology of a vast array of cancers driven by various mutations and across many body sites. New data and research approaches have created opportunities for researchers to study in detail many aspects of cancer biology, including how the normal biological programs of cell proliferation and death are altered during cancer and how the immune system responds to tumors.
The discovery of tumor stem cells in a range of cancers has created opportunities for researchers to identify these rare cells in both solid tumors and hematologic cancers, as well as to investigate the role of these cells at different stages of disease.
The recognition that the cancer cell is in a symbiotic relationship with the tumor microenvironment has created opportunities to study the interactions of cancer cells within the tumor or the host microenvironment. Researchers are now studying the molecular mechanisms and signaling pathways of cancer cell development, proliferation, and metastasis.
Growing interest in the microbiome, the community of microorganisms and viruses that inhabit the human body, has led researchers to investigate the role of the human microbiome in the initiation and progression of tumors.
New genetic technologies developed over the past decade have helped researchers examine the functional effects of genetic alterations that underlie the development of cancer. These tools have also been used to study epigenetic changes associated with cancer, mechanisms of DNA damage and repair, and gene regulation in cancer cells.
The introduction of increasingly powerful structural biology approaches has allowed researchers to characterize the structures of mutant proteins involved in cancer, such as RAS, and other molecules in greater detail than had been possible previously. And through approaches that allow the characterization of the entire proteome, researchers are integrating genomic analysis with the analysis of the proteins in tumor cells to learn, in detail, how cancer-associated mutant proteins affect other proteins.
There are also opportunities to explore cancer biology through systems biology approaches. Researchers use a variety of information and tools, such as mathematical modeling, to describe the complex interactions among components of a biological system and make predictions that help guide and further refine experimental science.
Basic research in cancer biology is often viewed as “high risk,” in part because the clinical applications of a given research project might not be clear at the outset. However, knowledge gained from studying cancer cell biology not only improves our understanding of the disease but is essential for the development of clinical advances that benefit patients, as recent progress in the areas of immunotherapy and cancer vaccines illustrates.
Nonetheless, because of the uncertainty about the outcomes of basic research in cancer biology, this area of research receives relatively little funding from sources that are driven by profit. For this reason, federal funding for cancer biology research is critical.
Collaboration across disciplines is increasingly necessary to better understand key mechanisms in cancer. Therefore, some investigators may need to develop tools and strategies for sharing and communicating research results.