Since when did the California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) have anything to do with cancer research? Well, if you ever find yourself shmoozing with a bunch of cancer research scientists during happy hour, you might hear a lot of rabbling about “drivers” and “passengers.”
Becuase of its genetic instability, cancer is well known for harboring countless mutations, and it is the mutations that allow for rapid development of resistance against various chemotherapies. Mutations also give rise to the properties that make cancer cancer, such as its abilty to invade into adjacent organs and propensity to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, or most famously, “immortality,” the ability to divide indefinitely without end. These are the so-called DRIVER mutations. Then there are the random mutations that do not contribute to the cancer’s “cancerness,” the so-called PASSENGER mutations. Why is it important to know which mutations are which? Well, as biotechnology becomes more sophisticated, treatments are now being targeted against specific mutations that a patient’s cancer might have. It’s kind of like creating an anti-venom for venom. If you’re going to “neutralize” one of the nasty properties of cancer (like its tendency to metastasize), then you’d better go after the correct mutation that is responsible for that property. In other words, if you’re going to stop a car in its tracks, you’d better go after the driver, and not the passengers who are just going along for the ride.