Understanding cancer set to change drastically; environmental factors under scanner

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New Delhi | Published: March 27, 2017 5:29:55 AM

If a new set of mathematical models bear out, our understanding of cancer could change fundamentally. New findings published in the journal, Science, argue that nearly two-thirds of the mutations behind cancers are caused by errors during DNA replication in cells.

The study, as per a Nature report, doesn?t contradict the fundamental epidemiological finding that 42% of cancers are preventable. But it does mean that the emphasis on environmental factors for most cancers may need a relook. (Reuters)

If a new set of mathematical models bear out, our understanding of cancer could change fundamentally. New findings published in the journal, Science, argue that nearly two-thirds of the mutations behind cancers are caused by errors during DNA replication in cells. The research says not only are these cancer mutations not inherited, but also it is difficult to prevent them by making appropriate lifestyle choices. This is not to say that environmental factors don’t have any role—for instance, smoking and sun-exposure do trigger the specific mutations that cause the cancers associate with these. The study, as per a Nature report, doesn’t contradict the fundamental epidemiological finding that 42% of cancers are preventable. But it does mean that the emphasis on environmental factors for most cancers may need a relook.

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Bert Vogelstein, a geneticist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Cristian Tomasetti, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, had found during an earlier analysis that the incidence of cancer was strongly correlated with the number of stem-cell divisions in an organ—stem-cell divisions in the brain are rarer than in the colon/rectum and correspondingly, cases of cancer of the brain were less common than colorectal ones. The researchers, in the new study, calculated the relative contributions of the environment, heredity and DNA-replication errors to cancer mutations and found that while the contribution varied between types of cancers—environmental factors were behind 65% of certain lung tumours, for instance, while replication errors accounted for 35%—but overall calculations for 32 different types of cancer indicate replication error account for a whopping 66%, environmental factors for 29% and heredity for just 5%. This means preventing certain types of cancer could depend on periodic profiling of cellular activity.

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