Defining the steps that lead to cancer: replicative telomere erosion,aneuploidy and an epigenetic maturation arrest of tissue stem cells.
Recently, an influential sequencing study found that more than 1700 genes had non-silent mutations in either a breast or colorectal cancer, out of just 11 breast and 11 colorectal tumor samples. This is not surprising given the fact that genomic instability is the hallmark of cancer cells. The plethora of genomic alterations found in every carcinoma does not obey the 'law of genotype-phenotype correlation', since the same histological subtype of cancer harbors different gene mutations and chromosomal aberrations in every patient. In an attempt to make sense out of the observed genetic and chromosomal chaos in cancer, I propose a cascade model. According to this model, tissue regeneration depends on the proliferation and serial activation of stem cells. Replicative telomere erosion limits the proliferative life span of adult stem cells and results in the Hayflick limit (M1). However, local tissue exhaustion or old age might promote the activation of M1-deficient tissue stem cells. Extended proliferation of these cells leads to telomere-driven chromosomal instability and aneuploidy (abnormal balance of chromosomes and/or chromosome material). Several of the aforementioned steps have been already described in the literature. However, in contrast to common theories, it is proposed here that the genomic damage blocks the epigenetic differentiation switch. As a result of aneuploidy, differentiation-specific genes cannot be activated by modification of methylation patterns. Consequently, the phenotype of cancer tissue is largely determined by the epigenetic maturation arrest of tissue stem cells, which in addition enables a fraction of cancer cells to proliferate, invade and metastasize, as normal adult stem cells do. The new model combines genetic and epigenetic alterations of cancer cells in one causative cascade and offers an explanation for why identical histologic cancer types harbor a confusing variety of chromosomal and gene aberrations. The Viennese Cascade, as presented here, may end the debate on if and how 'tumor-unspecific' aneuploidy leads to cancer.