Cancer research terms

The pace of discovery in cancer research is very rapid. New technologies and laboratory techniques are improving our understanding of cancer and are shaping cancer discussions in new ways.

Keep abreast of the changing terminology or find an explanation for a cancer research term in our glossary.


A substance that boosts immune response to an antigen.

Adjuvant therapy
Additional treatment (in combination with primary treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy) to decrease the risk of cancer reoccurring.

Adaptive immune system (or acquired immune system)
The component of the immune system that includes white blood cells, in particular lymphocytes. A new microbe or a vaccine causes the immune system to adapt and develop “memory” that remains for many years after exposure to the foreign particle.

Adverse drug reaction
Unwanted, unpleasant or harmful effects of drugs. Short-term adverse drug reactions (ADR) can disappear or alleviate if the drug is no longer administered or as the body adjusts. Long-term ADRs can be more serious.

The growth of new blood vessels in and around a tumour. This happens because tumours require a blood supply to bring nutrients and oxygen in and take waste products out of the tumour.

A protein produced by white blood cells which binds antigens that are presented on the surface of cells. Antibodies bound to antigens in a lock and key fashion mark a cell for destruction by other cells. Each antibody can only bind to a specific antigen.

A protein presented on the surface of a cell that stimulates specific immune responses from the body (e.g., production of antibodies to the antigen).

A molecule that prevents oxidation, which is a chemical process that can cause damage to the DNA in cells. Because antioxidants prevent this cell damage, they may help prevent cancer.

Apoptosis (programmed cell death)
A normal type of cell death that eliminates old, unnecessary or abnormal cells. This process can be blocked in some cancer cells allowing the cancer cells to survive.

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The science of managing, integrating and analyzing biological information using advanced computing technology.

Breast Cancer 1 and 2 genes are tumour suppressor genes that normally restrain cell growth. Mutations in these genes increase the risk of breast, ovarian, or prostate cancer.

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A disease where abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably. Cancer cells can destroy normal body tissue and may spread (metastasize) throughout the body.

An agent that causes cancer. Carcinogens can be natural (e.g., Aflatoxin, produced by a fungus) or man-made (e.g., tobacco smoke). Carcinogens work by causing mutations in the genetic material or DNA of cells.

The process of cancer cell formation.

A drug treatment that is often used to treat cancer. Chemotherapy is used to kill fast-growing cancer cells, control their growth or relieve pain. However it can also kill normal cells which also grow and divide.

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Drug Tolerance
The body may become accustomed to a drug. If this happens the dosage must be increased or a new drug needs must be used to be effective.

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The basic unit of heredity. Genes contain the instructions for producing proteins and functional RNAs. Genes determine particular characteristics of organisms, such as appearance, metabolism, or even their behaviour.

The total genetic content of an organism.

The study of all genetic content of an organism (the genome). Genomics research is usually large scale, covers a broad scope and uses data collection, analysis and bioinformatics.

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The process of finding and identifying specific molecules in different kinds of tissue. The tissue is treated with antibodies that bind the desired molecules, which are then visible under a microscope. Immunohistochemistry is used in cancer diagnosis.

Immune system
The system that defends against infection in the body.

Innate immunity
Basic resistance to disease and the defence against infections that does not depend on previous exposure. For example, skin and body temperature both defend against infections.

The study of the immune system

A type of biotherapy that stimulates the body's immune system to fight cancer.

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The spread of cancer from one area of the body to another. A tumour formed by the cancer cells that have spread is called a “metastatic tumour.”

A permanent change in the DNA sequence of a cell. Mutations can be inherited or they may be caused by environmental factors or mistakes when the cell is dividing. Some mutations can lead to cancer or other diseases. Most mutations result in no observable changes.

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A gene that normally promotes cell multiplication. Mutations in these genes can lead to a cell that remains stuck in the multiplication mode and can cause tumour formation.

Oncolytic virus
A virus that infects and breaks down cancer cells but not normal cells. Oncolytic viruses may possibly be used in cancer treatment.

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Personalized medicine
Personalized medicine is the tailoring of therapies to individual patients through use of their genetic information.

Primary tumour
Refers to the original tumour and the area where the cancer first started. A cancer is named for the area it started in. For example, breast cancer that has metastasized to another part of the body is still called breast cancer.

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Refers to energy released in particles or waves. In cancer research, radiation refers to the use of radioactivity in cancer treatment.

Radiation therapy
A cancer treatment that uses high-energy beams to pinpoint and destroy cancer cells. Also called radiotherapy.

The decrease or disappearance of signs of cancer. “Partial remission” refers to a decrease in signs, while “complete remission” refers to a total disappearance. However, cancer cells may still exist during complete remission; they are just undetectable.

Resistance in cancer means that it does not respond to treatment.

Risk factor
Refers to things that increase the likelihood of developing a disease or condition such as cancer. For example, age, family history and exposure to carcinogens are risk factors for developing cancer.

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Determining the order of subunits (components) in a molecular chain of building blocks, e.g., determining the order of nucleotides in a DNA chain.

Side effect
Unwanted reactions that occur with a given treatment.

Stem Cell
A cell that can divide indefinitely and develop into different cell types in the body. Stem cells divide into more stem cells or form specialized cells.

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Immunological unresponsiveness; the body's ability to become less responsive to substances.

Tumour suppressor gene
A gene that normally inhibits cell multiplication. Mutations in these genes can lead to the failure to switch off cell multiplication, which contributes to the formation of a tumour.

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