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Cancer Biology Research

Three-dimensional culture of human breast cancer cells, with DNA stained blue and a protein in the cell surface membrane stained green.

Breast cancer cells

Credit: NCI Center for Cancer Research, Tom Misteli, Karen Meaburn

The Importance of Cancer Biology Research

Research on the biology of cancer starts with the simplest of questions: What is—and isn’t—normal? To understand how cancer develops and progresses, researchers first need to investigate the biological differences between normal cells and cancer cells. This work focuses on the mechanisms that underlie fundamental processes such as cell growth, the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells, and the spread (metastasis) of cancer cells.

Virtually all major advances against cancer originated with discoveries in the basic sciences. Basic research reveals new concepts about the causes of cancer and how it develops, progresses, and responds to therapy.

NCI’s support of basic cancer research is essential. Long-term investments in research without immediate clinical application are not typically made by industry. The return on NCI’s sustained investment in basic scientific research has been remarkable. For example:

  • More than 40 years ago, scientists studying how retroviruses cause cancer discovered the first human oncogene (a gene that can transform a normal cell into a cancer cell). This novel and unexpected insight into cancer development, and other insights that followed, opened previously unexplored areas of cancer biology—ultimately leading to the era of precision oncology and new approaches to cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.
  • The Cancer Genome Atlas cataloged the genomic changes associated with 33 different types of cancer. These efforts have revealed numerous insights into the genetic bases of cancer. For example, the identification of genetic similarities across different types of tumors has led to therapeutic approaches that are based on molecular characteristics of tumors and not where in the body cancer starts. Building on this, NCI’s Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium is pioneering the integrated proteogenomic analysis of a growing number of cancer types.
  • More than 3 decades of NCI-funded basic research in cancer immunology and genetics contributed to the first “tumor agnostic” precision medicine for cancer. The drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is an immune checkpoint inhibitor, a class of drugs that are used to treat patients with more than 15 types of cancer. In 2017, pembrolizumab was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat patients with any type of cancer whose tumor has a certain genetic feature called high microsatellite instability or mismatch repair deficiency.

The Future of Cancer Biology Research

The creativity of NCI-funded researchers and innovative technologies will drive novel insights never thought possible. These discoveries might include new insights into the causes of cancer and fundamental research leading to treatment breakthroughs. New technology might be developed that revolutionizes cancer research. The knowledge gained from our investments in basic research today will drive tomorrow’s advances to help patients with cancer and individuals at risk of the disease.

NCI’s Plan for Cancer Biology Research

NCI prepares an Annual Plan & Budget Proposal for the President and Congress that describes the Institute’s scientific priorities and promising opportunities from across the research continuum. Included in the plan is the following strategic vision and approach for improving cancer biology research.


Researchers will have a comprehensive understanding of cancer biology that catalyzes the development of newer and safer ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer.


To improve our understanding of the many diseases we call cancer, we must unravel the complexity of how normal cells become cancerous and how cancer cells grow, survive, and spread throughout the body. To do this, NCI’s goals include the following:

1) Develop a comprehensive understanding of the molecular and cellular basis of cancer

A more complete understanding of cancer cell biology will enable new prevention, detection, and treatment approaches that take advantage of vulnerabilities identified in cancer cells and their precancerous lesions. Some of our major objectives are to:

  • Understand the genetic changes that give rise to cancer and the mechanisms by which those changes occur, as well as how genes are abnormally regulated (e.g., epigenetics)
  • Research the biological processes underlying cancer initiation, progression, and metastasis
  • Identify how tumors evolve and respond to or resist treatment
  • Study how cellular processes—such as cancer cell metabolism, stress responses, and cell cycle regulation—contribute to cancer development and progression

2) Understand how cancer cells interact with normal cells in the body to support or suppress tumor development and progression

Cancer can start in almost any tissue in the body, and the tissue in which a cancer develops and spreads can influence its molecular characteristics. This illustrates the importance of understanding the interactions between cancer cells and normal cells to develop new prevention and treatment approaches. NCI’s major objectives include:

  • Characterizing the components of the tumor microenvironment—including the cancer cells, connective tissue cells (fibroblasts), immune cells, bacterial cells (the tumor microbiome), blood vessels, and nerves—and determine their individual and collective influences on tumor progression and regression
  • Understanding the mechanisms by which cancer cells communicate with surrounding normal cells and interact with them to promote tumor growth
  • Clarifying how cells and tissues in other parts of the body interact with cancer cells to prevent or promote metastasis