The Structure Is the Message 

What if cancer is triggered by changes outside the cell?

Mutation does not always mean cancer. If you sampled cells from any woman's breast, Dr. Mina Bissell says, you would find a scattering of premalignant or even malignant cells. Despite these mutations, in seven out of eight women, those cells would be sitting there quietly, not causing trouble. Yet in the eighth woman, a few cells would progress to cancer. Why?

The answer, Bissell thinks, has to do with the very architecture of our bodies' organs.

The reason our internal organs aren't gelatinous blobs is because the cells sit on a latticework structure called the extracellular matrix. For years, researchers thought that the matrix was not much more than scaffolding. But Bissell's research has shown that this superstructure is actually in constant two-way communication with the cell's DNA, telling it both where it is, and how to behave as part of the larger tissue. In return, the matrix is modified by the genome. It is a prodigious idea: that the cell knows its function because of its orientation within a complicated 3-D architecture. "The structure is the message," she says.

Bissell believes that if something in the cell's microenvironment changes so that the cell and the extracellular matrix no longer exchange messages properly, the cell becomes disoriented, and essentially "forgets" where it comes from and what it is supposed to do. It goes from being a neatly organized cell, with a distinct top and bottom and a specific function, to being a disorganized mess that eventually breaks all the rules. Without the matrix maintaining order, cells that already had tumor-causing potential can begin proliferating, and cells with no previous mutation can become genomically unstable. "It is precisely when the cell in your nose, the cell in your breast, the cell in your skin doesn't know that it is supposed to stay put that it becomes cancer," Bissell says.

She believes this is why only a few cells overgrow and form tumors, not all of them, and that this is why a cell — even one with an inborn mutation — can remain well-behaved for years, and then suddenly go berserk if it stops getting the right signals. As long as the microenvironment can keep it in check, it won't become a tumor. But if the extracellular matrix breaks down, the cell loses its orientation and therefore its identity. "You can have mutation, mutation, mutation until you are blue in the face, and if the structure doesn't go," Bissell says, "you don't get cancer."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Readers also liked…

Latest in Feature

  • Will Corporations Ruin Live Music in the Bay Area?

    Promoters say that corporate saturation in San Francisco concerts means costlier tickets, boring music, and shutters for independent venues. What does it mean for the East Bay?
    • Mar 14, 2018
  • The Foilies 2018

    Recognizing the Year's Worst in Government Transparency
    • Mar 13, 2018
  • Permanently Temporary

    Oakland views itself as a progressive city, but it has increasingly relied on low-paid, part-time employees who have no job security. And workers say city services have suffered.
    • Mar 7, 2018
  • More »

Author Archives

  • Thinking Outside the Cell

    For decades, the scientific establishment ignored Mina Bissell. Now her insights could revolutionize how cancer is understood and treated.
    • Dec 12, 2007
  • Rolling in Green

    Canadian e-cars come to B-town, invasive trees pegged as a top eco-fuel candidate, and a carbon calculator that multiplies guilt.
    • Sep 26, 2007
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

  • Feeding on Local Newspapers

    A "vulture" hedge fund has been sucking the profits out of the East Bay Times and Mercury News for its other ventures. And local journalists want it to stop.
  • When Weed Isn't Strong Enough

    New restrictions on THC in edibles has left some medical cannabis patients scrambling.
  • Will Corporations Ruin Live Music in the Bay Area?

    Promoters say that corporate saturation in San Francisco concerts means costlier tickets, boring music, and shutters for independent venues. What does it mean for the East Bay?
  • Poverty's 'Progressive' Cheerleaders

    Legions of liberals front for the gig economy Trojan Horse of inequality. They should be ashamed.
  • West Oakland's Food Desert Remains

    A shopping plaza where the city and community partners have been trying to open a supermarket for more than a decade was sold in the fraud case against the former Tribune Tower owner.

Special Reports

Holiday Guide 2017

A guide to this holiday season's gifts, outings, eats, and more.

Taste, Fall 2017

© 2018 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation