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Environ Health Perspect. 1996 May; 104(Suppl 3): 569–577.
PMCID: PMC1469659
Research Article

The role of individual susceptibility in cancer burden related to environmental exposure.


Individual susceptibility to cancer may result from host factors including differences n metabolism, DNA repair, altered expression of protooncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, and nutritional status. Since most carcinogens require metabolic activation before binding to DNA, variations in an individual's metabolic phenotype that have detected in enzymes involved in activation and detoxification should play an essential role in the development of environmental cancer. This phenotypic metabolic variation has now been related to genetic polymorphisms, and many genes encoding carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes have been identified and cloned. Consequently, allelic variants or genetic defects that give rise to the observed variation and new polymorphisms have been recognized. Development of simple polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based assays has enabled identification of an individual's genotype for a variety of metabolic polymorphisms. Thus, recent knowledge of the genetic basis for individual metabolic variation has opened new possibilities of studies focusing on increased individual susceptibility to environmentally induced cancer, which are reviewed with special reference to smoking-induced lung cancer. Cancer susceptibility due to chemical exposure is likely to be determined by an individual's phenotype for a number of enzymes (both activating and detoxifying) relevant to that of a single carcinogen or mixtures of carcinogens. Given the number and variability in expression of carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes and the complexity of chemical exposures, assessment of a single polymorphic enzyme (genotype) may not be sufficient. Mutations in the p53 gene are among the most common genetic changes in human cancer. The frequency and type p53 mutations can act as a fingerprint of carcinogen exposure and may therefore provide information about external etiological agents, intensity of exposure, and host factors affecting the tumorigenesis process. In human lung cancer, p53 mutations (both the mutation pattern and frequency) have been linked with tobacco smoking; the type of mutation most frequently observed is G:C to T:A transversion, a mutation preferentially induced by benzo[a]pyrene diol epoxide. An association between the presence of this transversion and the genotype deficient in glutathione S-transferase M1-mediated detoxification has been observed in lung cancer. Taken together, these findings suggest that determination of metabolic at risk genotypes in combination with levels of DNA adducts in target (surrogate) tissues and the p53 mutation pattern should allow the identification of susceptible individuals and subgroups in carcinogen-exposed populations.

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