BETHESDA, MarylandUntangling the interactions between genes and
the environment poses a major research challenge and a significant opportunity
to improve cancer prevention and control. The potential for discovery includes
how various environmental factors, including contaminants and life-style
behaviors, affect genes; why some people are more susceptible to cancers than
others; and new ways to assess an individual’s genetic risks for specific
The National Cancer Institute has named gene-environment interactions as an
area in which intensifying research could pay enormous dividends. Robert A.
Hiatt, MD, PhD, deputy director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and
Population Studies, discussed the Institute’s efforts with Patrick Young, ONI’s
Washington Bureau Chief.
Oncology News International: What has led to the integration of cancer genetics with the study of
environmental risk factors?
Dr. Hiatt: Epidemiologists have focused on the environment for some time.
They’ve looked at the effects of tobacco, diet, and pharmaceuticals, for
instance, on cancer etiology. With the discoveries in genetics, the possibility
has arisen of understanding how a gene might make someone more or less
susceptible to these environmental factors.
So the interaction issue has become important in understanding whether
different parts of the population may be more or less susceptible to
environmental factors, which will be important in diagnosis, prevention, and
ONI: What are the major environmental and life-style factors that you are
focusing on at this time?
Dr. Hiatt: Tobacco is the biggest. Diet and hormonessupplements as well
as endogenous hormonesare also important in many cancers. Environmental
factors such as benzene, radiation, and radon are important. And other
life-style factors, such as physical activities, are increasingly becoming a
part of the cancer-causing picture.