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Environ Health Perspect. 1992 November; 98: 167–178.
PMCID: PMC1519631
Research Article

Molecular epidemiology in cancer risk assessment and prevention: recent progress and avenues for future research.


Molecular epidemiology is increasingly being applied in studies of cancer risks derived from exposure to environmental carcinogens of both endogenous and exogenous origins. Analytical methods have been developed that are capable of detecting and quantifying levels of covalent adducts of several important classes of carcinogens with cellular DNA and blood proteins. Methods of sufficient sensitivity and specificity to detect ambient levels of exposure are in current use. These are being used in studies related to tobacco use (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aromatic amines, tobacco-specific nitrosamines); dietary exposures (aflatoxins, N-nitrosamines, heterocyclic amines); medicinal exposures (cisplatin, alkylating agents, 8-methoxypsoralen, ultraviolet photoproducts); occupational exposures (aromatic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, oxides of ethylene and styrene, and vinyl chloride); and oxidative damage (8-hydroxyguanine, thymine glycol). Methodologic improvements together with their expanded use in feasibility studies continue to produce results that support the validity of this approach for detecting and quantifying exposure to carcinogens. Genetic markers are also being used to detect early biological responses in efforts to link carcinogen exposure to initiating events in the carcinogenesis process. These include, in addition to traditional cytogenetic markers (e.g., chromosomal aberrations, sister chromatid exchange, micronuclei), other alterations in chromosomal structure such as restriction fragment length polymorphisms, loss of heterozygosity, and translocation markers. Specific genetic changes have recently been identified as critical molecular events in the initiation and development of many cancers. Important among these are activation of oncogenes, especially those of the ras family, and inactivation of tumor-suppressor genes (e.g., p53 and Rb) by point mutations and/or chromosomal deletions and other structural changes. Although some of these changes are known to occur in chemically induced tumors of experimental animals, the possible role of chemical carcinogens in the induction of genetic abnormalities in human cancers has yet to be determined. Continuing investigations employing the methods of molecular epidemiology promise to provide further evidence concerning these relationships. Future investigations employing newly developed molecular biological methods, in particular those based on polymerase chain reaction amplification of DNA, to identify alterations in DNA and chromosomal structure, combined with methods for characterizing exposure to carcinogens and early effects, have great potential for further elucidating the role of genotoxic agents in the etiology of human cancers and also for the development of strategies for their prevention.

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