Why Cells Go Bad, by Sally James

How does cancer start?

You might say it starts in the lungs, pancreas or the brain. It starts when normal cells, tiny building blocks of life, become cancer cells. The cells go bad, just like the juvenile delinquents in a 1950s "B" movie. Shedding their normal inhibitions, the teens do things they know they shouldn't. Cells lose their inhibitions, too; cancerous clumps begin multiplying wildly, giving rise to a deadly tumor or blood disease.

Just as one can't usually identify the day and hour a person begins to wobble toward delinquency, it is extremely difficult to find the beginning of cancer in a single human cell.

Lawrence Loeb spends his days trying to answer this question. A molecular biologist and pathologist who heads the Joseph Gottstein Memorial Cancer Research Laboratories at the University of Washington, Loeb is at the center of a revolution in understanding the mutation of cells. It might be arcane basic science, but scientists believe that once we understand how mutations begin, we can develop new ways to fight cancer and the virus that causes AIDS.

The starting point of Loeb's obsession came in 1974, when he was a 38-year-old junior member of a team at the Fox Chase Center for Cancer in Philadelphia.

Loeb wrote an essay about how cancer cells might get started on the long road they travel toward aggressive malignancy, but he wasn't sure it was worth publishing. He showed it to a senior colleague who said: "Larry, this is the most important work you will ever do."

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