Study finds most cancers occur randomly and are unavoidable

While previous scientific literature suggests cancer is widely attributable to heredity and environmental factors, a new study suggests most cancers are the result of random, unpredictable genetic mutations.

For the study, published in the journal Science, researchers from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore created a mathematical model based on DNA sequencing and epidemiologic data from around the globe. The researchers used the model to examine the mutations that spur abnormal cell growth for 32 cancer types.

For pancreatic cancer, 77 percent of the genetic mutations that incite cancer development were attributable to random DNA copying errors, 18 percent were attributable to environmental or lifestyle factors like smoking and 5 percent were linked to heredity. For several cancer types such as brain, prostate and bone cancers, more than 95 percent of the cancer-causing mutations occurred because of random DNA copying errors. However, for lung cancer, environmental factors like smoking were attributable to 65 percent of the mutations and DNA copying errors caused 35 percent of the mutations. Heredity displayed no role in the development of lung cancer.

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Across all 32 cancers, 66 percent of mutations resulted from copying errors, 29 percent were attributable to lifestyle or environmental factors, and the remaining 5 percent were linked to inherited genetic traits.

"We need to continue to encourage people to avoid environmental agents and lifestyles that increase their risk of developing cancer mutations," said Bert Vogelstein, MD, co-director of the Ludwig Center at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and one of the study's authors. "However, many people will still develop cancers due to these random DNA copying errors, and better methods to detect all cancers earlier, while they are still curable, are urgently needed."

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