Cancer: A Genetic Gamble

A paper published in Science Magazine this month, co-authored by a mathematician and a biologist, suggests that heredity and environmental factors account for only one-third of the risk for developing cancer. A majority of risk is associated with random mutations, a result of mistakes during normal cellular replication.

It may sound flippant to say that many cases of cancer are caused by bad luck, but that is what 2 scientists suggested in an article published last week in the journal Science. The bad luck comes in the form of random genetic mistakes, or mutations, that happen when healthy cells divide.

Random mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk of getting many types of cancer, leaving the usual suspects—heredity and environmental factors—to account for only one-third, say the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein, MD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We do think this is a fundamental mechanism, and this is the first time there’s been a measure of it,” said Dr Tomasetti, an applied mathematician.

Though the researchers suspected that chance had a role, they were surprised at how big it turned out to be.

Link to the article on The New York Times: