How Creating a Cancer Could Help Find a Cure

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Often in medicine, before you can find out how to destroy the enemy, you first need to know how to build it. And so it came as important news on Thursday when the science journal Nature revealed that a team of researchers had succeeded for the first time in turning a normal human cell into a cancerous cell through genetic alterations in the laboratory. The long-sought process involved inserting three genes, one that causes cells to grow relentlessly, another that keeps them from aging, and a third that blocks growth-stopping signals.

"Though there are no clinical applications for this process at the moment," says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman, "this is an important basic research advance." Scientists have been able to turn normal human cells into cancerous cells before by using chemicals or X-rays. "But this has been a hit-or-miss proposition," says Gorman. "The new laboratory process will help scientists understand more clearly what are the genetic steps." This is important because cancer cells exhibit so many genetic changes that scientists are at present not sure which changes are cause and which are effect. The precise procedures used to create the laboratory cancer cells could help untwine the mysteries of the natural process. Don't expect a cure for cancer any time soon, though. "All cancers are not the same," says Gorman, "and so you can probably expect different genetic steps for different tumors."