Tumor suppressor genes such as Rb and p53 usually kill tumor cells when overexpressed ectopically. This is a consequence of their normal cell cycle regulatory functions. By contrast, the E1a gene of adenovirus, a common cold virus, converts tumor cells into viable normal cells. This has advantages for investigation and control of cancer. In particular, E1a is a master programmer of the epithelial phenotype. This provides a new tool for understanding the molecular basis of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, and how it goes awry in cancer cells. Furthermore, epithelial cells are sensitive to a form of apoptosis - 'anoikis' - that is induced by detachment from extracellular matrix. This property confers strict anchorage-dependence. Transcriptional programming, by E1a or the formation of cell-cell junctional complexes, programs epithelial cells to be sensitive to anoikis.