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The cell cycle

Every cell in the body goes through a life cycle. Cells grow and divide to replace cells that are lost because of normal wear and tear or injury. Different cells grow and die at different rates. Some cells, such as epithelial cells, reproduce quickly. Other cells, like nerve cells, grow slowly. Both normal cells and cancer cells go through a sequence of steps, or phases, when they form new cells. This is called the cell cycle.

Cell Cycle




Resting phase (also called the quiescent or dormant phase)

  • The cell performs all of its normal functions but is not preparing to divide.
  • Some cells divide often and either are in G0 for a short amount of time or skip G0. Other cells do not divide very often and are in the G0 phase for many years.
  • When the cell receives the signal to divide, it moves into  G1 phase of the cell cycle.


Gap 1 – first growth phase

  • The cell prepares to undergo cell division.
  • The cell still performs all of its normal functions, but starts to get bigger.
  • The cell begins to make a copy of the cell parts (organelles). It also begins to make more protein to get ready to divide.
  • The time for this phase varies from about 8 hours to several days, weeks or months.


Synthesis phase

  • The cell copies its DNA (DNA synthesis) to make 2 sets of chromosomes – one set for each new cell.
  • This phase lasts about 6–8 hours.


Gap 2 – second growth phase

  • The cell makes more proteins in preparation for cell division.
  • This phase lasts about 2–5 hours.







  • The cell divides into 2 new cells, which occurs in 4 stages (prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telophase).
  • The mitosis phase lasts about 1–3 hours.

After mitosis, a cell either re-enters the G1 phase or goes into the resting phase (G0) where it may later re-enter the cell cycle.

Cell cycle and cancer

Normal tissue is made up of cells that are in the resting phase (G0) and cells that are in the process of dividing or dying. There is a balance of dividing cells and dying cells in normal tissue. Cancer can occur when there is no longer a balance between dividing and dying cells. The tissue can start to grow to form a tumour made up of abnormally growing and dividing cells. Cancer cells usually can’t enter G0 and therefore begin to divide uncontrollably.

After a person has a biopsy or undergoes surgery to remove a tumour, a pathologist will look for cells in the tissue sample that are in the process of dividing. These cells are called "mitotic figures." The number of mitotic figures seen under the microscope helps a pathologist determine the mitotic rate, which is used to diagnosis cancer.

Cell cycle and cancer treatment

The cell cycle is important in cancer treatment because some therapies work best when cells are actively or quickly dividing. For example, some chemotherapy drugs work by attacking cells in a particular phase of the cell cycle (such as G1, S or G2 phase), while radiation therapy seems to be most effective when cells are undergoing cell division (in the M phase). Knowledge about the cell cycle helps doctors decide on the best treatment, including what combinations of drugs to use, and in what order and how often to give them.


A tissue made up of epithelial cells. It makes up the surface of the skin. It also lines hollow areas of the body (called cavities), glands and the passages of the respiratory, digestive, reproductive and urinary systems.

deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

The molecules inside the cell that program genetic information. DNA determines the structure, function and behaviour of a cell.


The removal of cells or tissues for examination under a microscope.

Different types of biopsies include incisional biopsy, excisional biopsy and needle biopsy. Sometimes imaging techniques are used to guide the biopsy, as in ultrasound-guided biopsy and computed tomography (CT)–guided biopsy.


The study of disease, including causes, development and effects on the body.

The symptoms, processes or conditions of a disease.

A doctor who specializes in the causes and nature of disease is called a pathologist. Pathologists help determine diagnosis, prognosis and treatment by studying cells and tissues under a microscope and using laboratory tests.

Pathological means referring to or having to do with pathology. It can also refer to something related to or caused by a disease, as in pathological fracture.


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