Cancer risk myth debunked mathematically

December 9, 2015
Cancer risk myth debunked

A recent study published in Science by Tomasetti and Vogelstein suggests that variations in terms of cancer risk among tissues from various organs in the body merely amount to pure bad luck. In other words, cancer risk is linked to random mutations arising in the normal course of DNA replication of healthy cells. They also claim that environmental and genetic factors play a lesser role. The scientific community has primarily reacted negatively to this interpretation and promptly refuted it with qualitative arguments and empirical evidence.

Joining these voices are Didier Sornette and Maroussia Favre from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, who uncovered the statistical fallacy at the source of the Science paper's conclusion. The key is to distinguish between individual organ risks and population risks, they wrote in recent correspondence published in EPJ Nonlinear Biomedical Physics. They also contend that the role of genetic and environmental factors must not be underplayed, even if these factors cannot explain differences in between different organs.

Sornette and Favre's argument points to the importance of population heterogeneity, i.e. each person has different individual risks that are perhaps linked to environmental and , when establishing population-wide predictions of .

To prove their point, the authors include a rigorous mathematical demonstration. For any given organ, they calculate a correlation between lifetime cancer risk and the total number of stem cell divisions. They do so for two different sub-population groups, one with a high cancer risk and the other with a low risk, averaged over the whole sample population. This translates into an equal or higher correlation of cancer occurrence for the whole population.

This counters the Science paper's interpretation that a large fraction of the variation in cancer risk among different organs can largely be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. In fact, the authors contend, the measurable difference between organs in terms of cancer rates are not mutually exclusive to the strong environmental and genetic effects on cancer rates.

Explore further: Cancer risk evaluation: Methods and trends

More information: D. Sornette et al. Debunking mathematically the logical fallacy that cancer risk is just "bad luck", EPJ Nonlinear Biomedical Physics (2015). DOI: 10.1140/epjnbp/s40366-015-0026-0

Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science. 2015;347(6217):78–81.

Related Stories

Cancer risk evaluation: Methods and trends

July 14, 2011

The development of almost all cancer is influenced by environmental factors, argues Dr Günter Obe and co-editors in their new title Cancer Risk Evaluation: Methods and Trends. However, while some environmental factors, ...

Tiny genetic changes linked to breast cancer risk

December 2, 2015

An international breast cancer research team involving the University of Adelaide has used a world-first technique to discover how tiny variations in genes can contribute to breast cancer risk.

Recommended for you

An inflexible diet led to the disappearance of the cave bear

August 23, 2016

Senckenberg scientists have studied the feeding habits of the extinct cave bear. Based on the isotope composition in the collagen of the bears' bones, they were able to show that the large mammals subsisted on a purely vegan ...

Paleontologists discover major T. rex fossil (Update)

August 18, 2016

Paleontologists with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the University of Washington have discovered a Tyrannosaurus rex, including a very complete skull. The find, which paleontologists estimate to be about ...

Was 'Iceman Otzi' a Copper Age fashionista?

August 18, 2016

The 5,300-year-old Alpine mummy known as the Tyrolean Iceman died wearing leather clothes and accessories harvested from no less than five wild or domesticated species, a DNA analysis published Thursday revealed.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bongstar420
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2015
Your chances of getting cancer are primarily effected by your genetic predisposition to that state.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.