Special Articles

Environment and Cancer: Who Are Susceptible?

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Science  07 Nov 1997:
Vol. 278, Issue 5340, pp. 1068-1073
DOI: 10.1126/science.278.5340.1068

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Acting in concert with individual susceptibility, environmental factors such as smoking, diet, and pollutants play a role in most human cancer. However, new molecular evidence indicates that specific groups—characterized by predisposing genetic traits or ethnicity, the very young, and women—may have heightened risk from certain exposures. This is illustrated by molecular epidemiologic studies of environmental carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aromatic amines. Individual genetic screening for rare high-risk traits or for more common, low-penetrant susceptibility genes is problematic and not routinely recommended. However, knowledge of the full spectrum of both genetic and acquired susceptibility in the population will be instrumental in developing health and regulatory policies that increase protection of the more susceptible groups from risks of environmental carcinogens. This will necessitate revision of current risk assessment methodologies to explicitly account for individual variation in susceptibility to environmental carcinogens.

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