New research has thrown into doubt the conventional view that cancer develops gradually as cells become increasingly abnormal.
A study conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, found cancer can strike out of the blue as a result of a phenomenon called chromothripsis, or “chromosome shattering”.
The effect of this sudden chromosomal “explosion” is to tear chromosomes apart, after which their components are reassembled in a patchwork fashion, and it is these genetic mistakes which are often serious enough to lead to cancer.
Publishing the findings in the journal Cell, study leader Dr Peter Campbell said: “It seems that in a single cell in a single event, one or more chromosomes basically explode - literally into hundreds of fragments.
“In some instances - the cancer cases - our DNA repair machinery tries to stick the chromosomes back together but gets it disastrously wrong. Out of the hundreds of mutations that result, several promote the development of cancer.”
Professor Mike Stratton, director of the Sanger Institute and one of the study’s co-authors, said: “The evidence suggests that a single cellular crisis shatters a chromosome or chromosomes, and that the DNA repair machinery pastes them back together in a highly erroneous order.”