Neoplasm (from ancient Greek νεο- neo-, "new" + πλάσμα plasma, "formation", "creation") is an abnormal mass of tissue as a result of neoplasia. Neoplasia is the abnormal growth or division of cells. Prior to neoplasia, cells often undergo an abnormal pattern of growth, such as metaplasia or dysplasia. However, metaplasia or dysplasia do not always progress to neoplasia. The growth of neoplastic cells exceeds, and is not coordinated with, that of the normal tissues around it. The growth persists in the same excessive manner even after cessation of the stimuli. It usually causes a lump or tumor. Neoplasms may be benign, pre-malignant (carcinoma in situ) or malignant (cancer).
In modern medicine, the term tumor means a neoplasm that has formed a lump. In the past, the term tumor was used differently. Some neoplasms do not cause a lump.
A neoplasm can be benign, potentially malignant (pre-cancer), or malignant (cancer).
Because neoplasia includes very different diseases, it is difficult to find an all-encompassing definition. The definition of the British oncologist R.A. Willis is widely cited: "A neoplasm is an abnormal mass of tissue, the growth of which exceeds and is uncoordinated with that of the normal tissues, and persists in the same excessive manner after cessation of the stimulus which evoked the change." This definition is criticized because some neoplasms, such as nevi, are not progressive.
Neoplastic tumors often contain more than one type of cell, but their initiation and continued growth is usually dependent on a single population of neoplastic cells. These cells are presumed to be clonal – that is, they are descended from a single progenitor cell.
Sometimes, the neoplastic cells all carry the same genetic or epigenetic anomaly that becomes evidence for clonality. For lymphoid neoplasms, e.g. lymphoma and leukemia, clonality is proven by the amplification of a single rearrangement of their immunoglobulin gene (for B cell lesions) or T-cell receptor gene (for T cell lesions). The demonstration of clonality is now considered to be necessary to identify a lymphoid cell proliferation as neoplastic.
It is tempting to define neoplasms as clonal cellular proliferations but the demonstration of clonality is not always possible. Therefore, clonality is not required in the definition of neoplasia.
Tumor (Latin for swelling, one of the cardinal signs of inflammation) originally meant any form of swelling, neoplastic or not. Current English, however, both medical and non-medical, uses tumor as a synonym of neoplasm.
Some neoplasms do not form a tumor. These include leukemia and most forms of carcinoma in situ.
DNA damage is considered to be the primary underlying cause of malignant neoplasms (cancers). Its central role in progression to cancer is illustrated in the figure in this section, in the box near the top. (The central features of DNA damage, epigenetic alterations and deficient DNA repair in progression to cancer are shown in red.) DNA damage is very common. Naturally occurring DNA damages (mostly due to cellular metabolism and the properties of DNA in water at body temperatures) occur at a rate of more than 10,000 new damages, on average, per human cell, per day [see article DNA damage (naturally occurring) ]. Additional DNA damages can arise from exposure to exogenous agents. Tobacco smoke causes increased exogenous DNA damage, and these DNA damages are the likely cause of lung cancer due to smoking. UV light from solar radiation causes DNA damage that is important in melanoma. Helicobacter pylori infection produces high levels of reactive oxygen species that damage DNA and contributes to gastric cancer. Bile acids, at high levels in the colons of humans eating a high fat diet, also cause DNA damage and contribute to colon cancer. Katsurano et al. indicated that macrophages and neutrophils in an inflamed colonic epithelium are the source of reactive oxygen species causing the DNA damages that initiate colonic tumorigenesis. Some sources of DNA damage are indicated in the boxes at the top of the figure in this section.
Individuals with a germ line mutation causing deficiency in any of 34 DNA repair genes (see article DNA repair-deficiency disorder) are at increased risk of cancer. Some germ line mutations in DNA repair genes cause up to 100% lifetime chance of cancer (e.g. p53 mutations). These germ line mutations are indicated in a box at the left of the figure with an arrow indicating their contribution to DNA repair deficiency.
About 70% of malignant neoplasms have no hereditary component and are called "sporadic cancers". Only a minority of sporadic cancers have a deficiency in DNA repair due to mutation in a DNA repair gene. However, a majority of sporadic cancers have deficiency in DNA repair due to epigenetic alterations that reduce or silence DNA repair gene expression. For example, for 113 sequential colorectal cancers, only four had a missense mutation in the DNA repair gene MGMT, while the majority had reduced MGMT expression due to methylation of the MGMT promoter region (an epigenetic alteration). Five reports present evidence that between 40% and 90% of colorectal cancers have reduced MGMT expression due to methylation of the MGMT promoter region.
Similarly, out of 119 cases of mismatch repair-deficient colorectal cancers that lacked DNA repair gene PMS2 expression, PMS2 was deficient in 6 due to mutations in the PMS2 gene, while in 103 cases PMS2 expression was deficient because its pairing partner MLH1 was repressed due to promoter methylation (PMS2 protein is unstable in the absence of MLH1). In the other 10 cases, loss of PMS2 expression was likely due to epigenetic overexpression of the microRNA, miR-155, which down-regulates MLH1.
In further examples [tabulated in the article Epigenetics (see section “DNA repair epigenetics in cancer”)], epigenetic defects were found at frequencies of between 13%-100% for the DNA repair genes BRCA1, WRN, FANCB, FANCF, MGMT, MLH1, MSH2, MSH4, ERCC1, XPF, NEIL1 and ATM. These epigenetic defects occurred in various cancers (e.g. breast, ovarian, colorectal and head and neck). Two or three deficiencies in expression of ERCC1, XPF and/or PMS2 occur simultaneously in the majority of the 49 colon cancers evaluated by Facista et al. Epigenetic alterations causing reduced expression of DNA repair genes is shown in a central box at the third level from the top of the figure in this section, and the consequent DNA repair deficiency is shown at the fourth level.
When expression of DNA repair genes is reduced, DNA damages accumulate in cells at a higher than normal level, and these excess damages cause increased frequencies of mutation and/or epimutation. Mutation rates strongly increase in cells defective in DNA mismatch repair or in homologous recombinational repair (HRR).
During repair of DNA double strand breaks, or repair of other DNA damages, incompletely cleared sites of repair can cause epigenetic gene silencing. DNA repair deficiencies (level 4 in the figure) cause increased DNA damages (level 5 in the figure) which result in increased somatic mutations and epigenetic alterations (level 6 in the figure).
Field defects, normal appearing tissue with multiple alterations (and discussed in the section below), are common precursors to development of the disordered and improperly proliferating clone of tissue in a malignant neoplasm. Such field defects (second level from bottom of figure) may have multiple mutations and epigenetic alterations.
Once a cancer is formed, it usually has genome instability. This instability is likely due to reduced DNA repair or excessive DNA damage. Because of such instability, the cancer continues to evolve and to produce sub clones. For example, a renal cancer, sampled in 9 areas, had 40 ubiquitous mutations (i.e. present in all areas of the cancer), 59 mutations shared by some (but not all areas), and 29 “private” mutations only present in one of the areas of the cancer.
The term “field cancerization” was first used in 1953 to describe an area or “field” of epithelium that has been preconditioned by (at that time) largely unknown processes so as to predispose it towards development of cancer. Since then, the terms “field cancerization” and “field defect” have been used to describe pre-malignant tissue in which new cancers are likely to arise.
Field defects are important in progression to cancer. However, in most cancer research, as pointed out by Rubin “The vast majority of studies in cancer research has been done on well-defined tumors in vivo, or on discrete neoplastic foci in vitro. Yet there is evidence that more than 80% of the somatic mutations found in mutator phenotype human colorectal tumors occur before the onset of terminal clonal expansion…” Similarly, Vogelstein et al. point out that more than half of somatic mutations identified in tumors occurred in a pre-neoplastic phase (in a field defect), during growth of apparently normal cells. Likewise, epigenetic alterations present in tumors may have occurred in pre-neoplastic field defects.
In the colon, a field defect probably arises by natural selection of a mutant or epigenetically altered cell among the stem cells at the base of one of the intestinal crypts on the inside surface of the colon. A mutant or epigenetically altered stem cell may replace the other nearby stem cells by natural selection. Thus, a patch of abnormal tissue may arise. The figure in this section includes a photo of a freshly resected and lengthwise-opened segment of the colon showing a colon cancer and four polyps. Below the photo there is a schematic diagram of how a large patch of mutant or epigenetically altered cells may have formed, shown by the large area in yellow in the diagram. Within this first large patch in the diagram (a large clone of cells), a second such mutation or epigenetic alteration may occur so that a given stem cell acquires an advantage compared to other stem cells within the patch, and this altered stem cell may expand clonally forming a secondary patch, or sub-clone, within the original patch. This is indicated in the diagram by four smaller patches of different colors within the large yellow original area. Within these new patches (sub-clones), the process may be repeated multiple times, indicated by the still smaller patches within the four secondary patches (with still different colors in the diagram) which clonally expand, until stem cells arise that generate either small polyps or else a malignant neoplasm (cancer). In the photo, an apparent field defect in this segment of a colon has generated four polyps (labeled with the size of the polyps, 6mm, 5mm, and two of 3mm, and a cancer about 3 cm across in its longest dimension). These neoplasms are also indicated, in the diagram below the photo, by 4 small tan circles (polyps) and a larger red area (cancer). The cancer in the photo occurred in the cecal area of the colon, where the colon joins the small intestine (labeled) and where the appendix occurs (labeled). The fat in the photo is external to the outer wall of the colon. In the segment of colon shown here, the colon was cut open lengthwise to expose the inner surface of the colon and to display the cancer and polyps occurring within the inner epithelial lining of the colon.
If the general process by which sporadic colon cancers arise is the formation of a pre-neoplastic clone that spreads by natural selection, followed by formation of internal sub-clones within the initial clone, and sub-sub-clones inside those, then colon cancers generally should be associated with, and be preceded by, fields of increasing abnormality reflecting the succession of premalignant events. The most extensive region of abnormality (the outermost yellow irregular area in the diagram) would reflect the earliest event in formation of a malignant neoplasm.
In experimental evaluation of specific DNA repair deficiencies in cancers, many specific DNA repair deficiencies were also shown to occur in the field defects surrounding those cancers. The Table, below, gives examples for which the DNA repair deficiency in a cancer was shown to be caused by an epigenetic alteration, and the somewhat lower frequencies with which the same epigenetically caused DNA repair deficiency was found in the surrounding field defect.
References in the table are given here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,
Some of the small polyps in the field defect shown in the photo of the opened colon segment may be relatively benign neoplasms. Of polyps less than 10mm in size, found during colonoscopy and followed with repeat colonoscopies for 3 years, 25% were unchanged in size, 35% regressed or shrank in size while 40% grew in size.
Cancers are known to exhibit genome instability or a mutator phenotype. The protein-coding DNA within the nucleus is about 1.5% of the total genomic DNA. Within this protein-coding DNA (called the exome), an average cancer of the breast or colon can have about 60 to 70 protein altering mutations, of which about 3 or 4 may be “driver” mutations, and the remaining ones may be “passenger” mutations However, the average number of DNA sequence mutations in the entire genome (including non-protein-coding regions) within a breast cancer tissue sample is about 20,000. In an average melanoma tissue sample (where melanomas have a higher exome mutation frequency) the total number of DNA sequence mutations is about 80,000. These high frequencies of mutations in the total nucleotide sequences within cancers suggest that often an early alteration in the field defects giving rise to a cancer (e.g. yellow area in the diagram in this section) is a deficiency in DNA repair. The large field defects surrounding colon cancers (extending to at about 10 cm on each side of a cancer) were shown by Facista et al. to frequently have epigenetic defects in 2 or 3 DNA repair proteins (ERCC1, XPF and/or PMS2) in the entire area of the field defect. Deficiencies in DNA repair cause increased mutation rates. A deficiency in DNA repair, itself, can allow DNA damages to accumulate, and error-prone translesion synthesis past some of those damages may give rise to mutations. In addition, faulty repair of these accumulated DNA damages may give rise to epimutations. These new mutations and/or epimutations may provide a proliferative advantage, generating a field defect. Although the mutations/epimutations in DNA repair genes do not, themselves, confer a selective advantage, they may be carried along as passengers in cells when the cell acquires an additional mutation/epimutation that does provide a proliferative advantage.
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