The relationship of the copy numbers of the c-myc and N-myc oncogenes to tumor formation and progression was studied in small cell carcinoma of the lung. When 96 neoplastic lesions from 45 patients were examined, these lesions could be grouped into three categories: high copy (tumors with greater than 3 copies of the N-myc or c-myc gene per haploid genome), middle copy (1.5 to 3 copies per genome), and normal copy. Fourteen of the patients had middle copy tumors, but this was almost always a result of chromosome duplication rather than the amplification of a small genetic locus. In contrast, five patients had high copy tumors, with the increased copy number in each case due to gene amplification. The amplification did not occur in a heterogeneous fashion within individual patients, since all metastatic lesions from patients with high copy lung tumors were also high copy, while none of 41 metastatic lesions from the other patients were high copy. These data suggest that gene amplification is an important step in neoplastic growth in a subset of patients with small cell carcinoma of the lung and that this genetic event occurs relatively early (before metastasis) in this subset.
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