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 cancers.
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 follow-up.
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.