Varmus and Bishop found that, under certain circumstances, normal genes
in healthy cells of the body can cause cancer; these genes are termed
oncogenes. Oncogenes ordinarily control cellular growth and division,
but, if they are picked up by infecting viruses or affected by chemical
carcinogens, they can be rendered capable of causing cancer. This research,
carried out with the aid of colleagues Dominique Stehelin and Peter
Vogt in the mid-1970s, superseded a theory that cancer is caused by
viral genes, distinct from a cell's normal genetic material, that lie
dormant in body cells until activated by carcinogens.
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