Implications of systemic dysfunction for the etiology of malignancy

Sarah S. Knox, Michael F. Ochs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current approach to treatment in oncology is to replace the generally cytotoxic chemotherapies with pharmaceutical treatment which inactivates specific molecular targets associated with cancer development and progression. The goal is to limit cellular damage to pathways perceived to be directly responsible for the malignancy. Its underlying assumptions are twofold: (1) that individual pathways are the cause of malignancy; and (2) that the treatment objective should be destruction-either of the tumor or the dysfunctional pathway. However, the extent to which data actually support these assumptions has not been directly addressed. Accumulating evidence suggests that systemic dysfunction precedes the disruption of specific genetic/molecular pathways in most adult cancers and that targeted treatments such as kinase inhibitors may successfully treat one pathway while generating unintended changes to other, non-targeted pathways. This article discusses (1) the systemic basis of malignancy; (2) better profiling of pre-cancerous biomarkers associated with elevated risk so that preventive lifestyle modifications can be instituted early to revert high-risk epigenetic changes before tumors develop; (3) a treatment emphasis in early stage tumors that would target the restoration of systemic balance by strengthening the body's innate defense mechanisms; and (4) establishing better quantitative models of systems to capture adequate complexity for predictability at all stages of tumor progression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-22
Number of pages12
JournalGene Regulation and Systems Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2013


  • Complex systems
  • Quantitative modeling
  • Targeted therapy
  • Tumor microenvironment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Molecular Biology


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