Cell lineage commitment and differentiation are governed by a complex gene regulatory network. Disruption of these processes by inappropriate regulatory signals and by mutational rewiring of the network can lead to tumorigenesis. Cancer cells often exhibit immature or embryonic traits and dysregulated developmental genes can act as oncogenes. However, the prevailing paradigm of somatic evolution and multi-step tumorigenesis, while useful in many instances, offers no logically coherent reason for why oncogenesis recapitulates ontogenesis. The formal concept of "cancer attractors", derived from an integrative, complex systems approach to gene regulatory network may provide a natural explanation. Here we present the theory of attractors in gene network dynamics and review the concept of cell types as attractors. We argue that cancer cells are trapped in abnormal attractors and discuss this concept in the light of recent ideas in cancer biology, including cancer genomics and cancer stem cells, as well as the implications for differentiation therapy. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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