Biologists have discovered a single triggering event inside a cell that could lead it down the road to cancer.
The finding is significant because blocking that road at an early stage could prevent the subsequent mutation of cells that become tumors.
Normally, when the single event happens, if the cell can't fix it, it self-destructs, but those that don't commit suicide enlarge on the mistake and pass it on to other cells.
Those cells running amok are what we call cancer.
At the University of Utah, biologists Kent Golic and Simon Titen found a way to make this single event happen not rarely, as it usually does, but frequently in fruit flies.
Duplicating the defect over and over again in the flies is what makes their research possible.
Chromosomes, the spaghetti-like strands inside the nuclei of cells, usually break cleanly during division.
As some divide, a strand hangs on, stretching like an elastic.
Then it breaks, so one end of the chromosome is lost.
"Humans have 46 chromosomes, so we have 92 ends. There are two ends on each chromosome, and you only need to lose one of those to have this problem," Golic said.
That single event sends a message to the cell to fix the problem or die.
Out of two divided cells we watched, one self-destructed, as it should, but the other did not.
"What we found is that sometimes those cells don't die, and when they go on and divide with this problem, they now develop several other problems. And as I said, those are characteristic of cancer," Golic said.
That single break on only one end of the chromosome is like the single domino that leans and drops all the others in a cascading catastrophe.
If you could block that domino as it falls, the others would not. And that's the beauty of this study, where other researchers might go now, looking for ways to intercept the problem, what appears to be one simple glitch.
Cancer cells apparently have found ways to repair the ends of the broken chromosomes so they don't have to self-destruct.