EPJ NBP Highlight - Cancer risk myth debunked

Cancer risk is not just bad luck.
© tilialucida / Fotolia

Cancer risk debate laid to rest by novel calculations distinguishing population-wide risks for each organ and individual risks linked to environmental and genetic factors

A recent study published in Science by Tomasetti and Vogelstein suggests that variations in terms of cancer risk among tissues from various organs in the body merely amount to pure bad luck. In other words, cancer risk is linked to random mutations arising in the normal course of DNA replication of healthy cells. They also claim that environmental and genetic factors play a lesser role. The scientific community has primarily reacted negatively to this interpretation and promptly refuted it with qualitative arguments and empirical evidence. Joining these voices are Didier Sornette and Maroussia Favre from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, who uncovered the statistical fallacy at the source of the Science paper’s conclusion. The key is to distinguish between individual organ risks and population risks, they wrote in recent correspondence published in EPJ Nonlinear Biomedical Physics. They also contend that the role of genetic and environmental factors must not be underplayed, even if these factors cannot explain differences in cancer rates between different organs.

Sornette and Favre's argument points to the importance of population heterogeneity, i.e. each person has different individual risks that are perhaps linked to environmental and genetic factors, when establishing population-wide predictions of cancer risk.

To prove their point, the authors include a rigorous mathematical demonstration. For any given organ, they calculate a correlation between lifetime cancer risk and the total number of stem cell divisions. They do so for two different sub-population groups, one with a high cancer risk and the other with a low risk, averaged over the whole sample population. This translates into an equal or higher correlation of cancer occurrence for the whole population.

This counters the Science paper’s interpretation that a large fraction of the variation in cancer risk among different organs can largely be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. In fact, the authors contend, the measurable difference between organs in terms of cancer rates are not mutually exclusive to the strong environmental and genetic effects on cancer rates.

Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science. 2015;347(6217):78–81.

This was our first experience of publishing with EPJ Web of Conferences. We contacted the publisher in the middle of September, just one month prior to the Conference, but everything went through smoothly. We have had published MNPS Proceedings with different publishers in the past, and would like to tell that the EPJ Web of Conferences team was probably the best, very quick, helpful and interactive. Typically, we were getting responses from EPJ Web of Conferences team within less than an hour and have had help at every production stage.
We are very thankful to Solange Guenot, Web of Conferences Publishing Editor, and Isabelle Houlbert, Web of Conferences Production Editor, for their support. These ladies are top-level professionals, who made a great contribution to the success of this issue. We are fully satisfied with the publication of the Conference Proceedings and are looking forward to further cooperation. The publication was very fast, easy and of high quality. My colleagues and I strongly recommend EPJ Web of Conferences to anyone, who is interested in quick high-quality publication of conference proceedings.

On behalf of the Organizing and Program Committees and Editorial Team of MNPS-2019, Dr. Alexey B. Nadykto, Moscow State Technological University “STANKIN”, Moscow, Russia. EPJ Web of Conferences vol. 224 (2019)

ISSN: 2100-014X (Electronic Edition)

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