Current Mechanistic Approaches to the Chemoprevention of Cancer
Vernon E. Steele*
Chemoprevention Agent Development Research Group, Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA
The prevention of cancer is one of the most important public health and medical practices of the 21st century. We have made much progress in this new emerging field, but so much remains to be accomplished before widespread use and practice become common place. Cancer chemoprevention encompasses the concepts of inhibition, reversal, and retardation of the cancer process. This process, called carcinogenesis, requires 20-40 years to reach the endpoint called invasive cancer. It typically follows multiple, diverse and complex pathways in a stochastic process of clonal evolution. These pathways appear amenable to inhibition, reversal or retardation at various points. We must therefore identify key pathways in the evolution of the cancer cell that can be exploited to prevent this carcinogenesis process. Basic research is identifying many genetic lesions and epigenetic processes associated with the progression of precancer to invasive disease. Many of these early precancerous lesions favor cell division over quiescence and protect cells against apoptosis when signals are present. Many oncogenes are active during early development and are reactivated in adulthood by aberrant gene promoting errors. Normal regulatory genes are mutated, making them insensitive to normal regulatory signals. Tumor suppressor genes are deleted or mutated rendering them inactive. Thus there is a wide range of defects in cellular machinery which can lead to evolution of the cancer phenotype. Mistakes may not have to appear in a certain order for cells to progress along the cancer pathway. To conquer this diverse disease, we must attack multiple key pathways at once for a predetermined period of time. Thus, agent combination prevention strategies are essential to decrease cancer morbidity. Furthermore, each cancer type may require custom combination of prevention strategies to be successful.