Some of the most prevalent cancers in the United States are known to be highly preventable by human decisions.
Skin cancers like melanoma emerge in large part because of prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, and lung cancers can often be traced back to tobacco use.
But scientists have long struggled to gauge how much any individual’s tumor developed as a result of preventable actions compared to aging or “chance.”
A recent study from Yale University found the factors causing changes in the DNA that contribute most to cancer growth in tumors of most major cancer types.
Previously, scientists have shown that they can reliably predict how certain factors that cause specific mutations that alter the genome in tissues.
In the study, the researchers examined the instances of specific genetic mutations that can reveal the extent to which preventable exposures like ultraviolet light caused tumor growth in 24 cancers.
They combined this knowledge with their method that quantifies the contribution of each mutation to cancer.
They showed the specific percentage of the blame to be assigned to known and unknown but identified factors in the emergence of cancer.
They suggest that some cancers are more controllable than others. For example, preventable factors account for a large part of the formation of tumors of the bladder and skin.
However, they found that prostate cancers and gliomas are largely attributable due to internal age-associated processes.
Local populations or professions who suffer from inordinately high levels of cancer may also be able to use the findings to discover instances of exposure to carcinogenic substances.
The idea seems promising because capturing the proportion of factors could potentially expose the underlying causes which led to tumor growth.
Not all genetic changes that lead to tumors are incorporated into the current approach so more research is needed to fully understand complex genetic changes like duplicated genes or chromosomes.
Still, the findings could help public health officials quickly recognize sources of cancer before they lead to more tumors, thereby saving lives.
The research was published in Molecular Biology and Evolution and conducted by Jeffrey Townsend et al.
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