Oncogenes Act Like an Accelerator

By producing abnormal versions or quantities of cellular growth-control proteins, oncogenes cause a cell's growth-signaling pathway to become hyperactive. To use a simple metaphor, the growth-control pathway is like the gas pedal of an automobile. The more active the pathway, the faster cells grow and divide. The presence of an oncogene is like having a gas pedal that is stuck to the floorboard, causing the cell to continually grow and divide. A cancer cell may contain one or more oncogenes, which means that one or more components in this pathway will be abnormal.

Tumor Suppressor Genes

A second group of genes implicated in cancer are the "tumor suppressor genes." Tumor suppressor genes are normal genes whose absence can lead to cancer. In other words, if a pair of tumor suppressor genes are either lost from a cell or inactivated by mutation, their functional absence can cause cancer. Individuals who inherit an increased risk of developing cancer often are born with one defective copy of a tumor suppressor gene. Because genes come in pairs (one inherited from each parent), an inherited defect in one copy will not cause cancer because the other normal copy still works. But if the second copy undergoes mutation, the person then may develop cancer because there no longer is any functional copy of the gene.