Cancer Research Glossary
Cancer research has its own language, and it can be difficult to navigate at times. We offer this glossary of research terms to explain the terminology.
A physiological process in which blood vessels form. Tumors grow rapidly and must generate new vessels to take in oxygen and nutrition and remove waste.
B cells release antibodies that defend against harmful invaders. Each B cell is programmed to produce one specific antibody, for example, to attack a cold virus.
These molecules, including DNA, RNA and proteins, can provide information about the body. For example, a mutated protein may indicate cancer cells will resist treatment or be more aggressive.
Chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) are engineered T cells equipped with special receptors. These receptors, called chimeric antigen receptors, recognize target proteins on cancer cells and eliminate those cells.
Often called chemo, this class of treatments uses systemic drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by damaging DNA or interfering with cell division. Chemotherapy can be used alone or with surgery and/or radiation.
After a drug is discovered, research studies test whether new medical interventions, such as anti-cancer drugs or combinations of therapies, are safe and effective in humans. Clinical trials are subdivided into phases 1 through 3 (occasionally 4). Phase 1 tests a drug’s safety and the optimal dosage. Phase 2 studies are larger and test efficacy as well as safety. Phase 3, usually the pivotal study before FDA approval, is even larger and focuses almost exclusively on efficacy. Phase 4 studies are conducted after the drug is approved.
These proteins catalyze biochemical reactions and are important for most cellular functions.
Similar to software that helps control DNA’s genetic hardware, these chemical modifications control DNA expression. Epigenetic molecules, such as acetyl or methyl groups, bind to DNA or proteins to modulate gene expression. These mechanisms can be altered in cancer.
Our genes are the DNA blueprints for proteins. The gene is transcribed by RNA, which carries the message outside the cell nucleus to help generate a protein.
When genes are expressed, it means they have been turned “on” in the first step for producing proteins.
Also called tissue type, this test identifies proteins called antigens (cellular biomarkers that help the immune system distinguish between normal and diseased tissue) as well as pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria.
IMMUNE CHECKPOINT INHIBITORS
Immune checkpoints are part of a complex signaling system that prevents the immune system from attacking normal tissue. Tumors can co-opt this mechanism to make themselves invisible to immune cells. Checkpoint inhibitors, also called PD-1 or PD-L1 inhibitors, are immunothera- pies that counteract these signals, allowing the immune system to respond more appropriately.
Specialized treatments that can use a patient’s own immune systems to help them fight cancer.
These enzymes transfer energy packets, called phosphate groups, to proteins to activate them. This makes them critical components in cellular signaling. They play a major role in cancer, as mutated kinases can deliver aberrant signals that constantly urge cells to grow and divide. Drugs called kinase inhibitors seek to counteract this process.
The immune system’s “big eaters,” macrophages are cells that protect the body by engulfing and destroying bacteria, dead cells and other potentially destructive targets. They also present antigens to other immune cells.
Cancer cells can break away from the main tumor, travel through the bloodstream and form tumors throughout the body. This spread of tumors is the deadliest aspect of cancer.
The area around a tumor can be as important to cancer progression as the tumor itself. A microenvironment is not cancer but contains surrounding cells that have been modified by the tumor to facilitate its growth and survival.
These proteins, produced in laboratories, can be made to bind to specific cells, including cancer cells. They are useful as both research tools and therapies.
Over time, genes can be altered through exposure to chemicals or radiation or through errors in DNA replication during cell division. These variations can lead to cancer.
Some genes, under certain circumstances, can transform a normal cell into a tumor cell.
Different molecules, generally proteins, work in concert to control cellular function. Growth pathways control the cell’s ability to grow and divide and are often mutated in cancer.
A cancer vaccine is created for a patient using a combination of antigens made from the patient’s own tumor.
In the past, many treatments – such as chemotherapy – were one-size-fits-all. Now, researchers and clinicians want to personalize treatments for each patient based upon mutations and other biomarkers in their tumors.
These molecules perform most of the work in cells and form much of the tissue in the body.
Tumors can change the function of previously normal cells in and around it to make its environment more supportive.
These primitive cells can both replicate (like normal cells) and differentiate into other cell types (unlike normal cells). Sometimes there are populations of stem-like cancer cells in tumors that can resist treatment.
Supportive cells that surround organs, such as the pancreas, and other tissue.
These drugs hit specific cancer-driving mutations to slow, and sometimes stop, aberrant cell growth. Gleevec is a targeted therapy for a gene fusion (BCR-ABL) associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
White blood cells known as lymphocytes that mature in the thymus gland and help drive the immune response.
T CELL RECEPTOR (TCR)
This membrane protein complex activates T cells in response to an antigen.
TUMOR-INFILTRATING IMMUNE CELLS
As their name implies, these cells get inside tumors. Their presence is particularly important in determining if certain immunotherapies will be effective.
TUMOR SUPPRESSOR GENES
These genes slow cell division, repair DNA mistakes or tell damaged cells to die. When tumor suppressor genes don’t work properly, cells can grow out of control. The most famous example is a protein called p53, which ensures DNA replicates properly during cell division. Without p53, mutations can accumulate.
These viruses can cause cancer in either animals or people. Examples include hepatitis B and human papilloma virus.
Unlike preventive vaccines, therapeutic cancer vaccines treat disease that is already present. Cancer vaccines specifically stimulate the immune system to attack cancer.
WHOLE GENOME SEQUENCING (WGS)
Also known as full genome sequencing, this ubiquitous laboratory procedure reads an organism’s complete DNA sequence.