Do family genes matter? Cancer is not a purely genetic disease, study finds

EDMONTON, Alberta — Do your family genes really determine whether or not you’ll develop cancer? A team from the University of Alberta are calling for a more nuanced, holistic approach to cancer research. Study authors say that while the development of cancer is no doubt related to one’s genes, additional environmental and metabolic factors also come into play.

According to study author David Wishart, professor in the departments of biological sciences and computing science at UA, pretty much all popular theories on the origins of cancer can be boiled down into three categories: genetic, environmental, or metabolic.

Genetic cancer theories focus on the individual’s genome (the distinct set of genetic instructions each person is born with), while environmental theories focus on the exposome (everything a person is exposed to throughout their life). Finally, metabolic approaches to cancer analyze the metabolome; all chemical byproducts associated with the process of metabolism.

Of the three, the metabolic approach has received the least attention and research, but that is starting to change. Study authors believe all three (the genome, exposome, and metabolome) work together, forming a feedback loop as cancer develops and grows.

Moreover, according to the relevant data, heritable cancers make up only five to 10 percent of all diagnosed cancers. The rest are brought on by exposome-related factors, which spark genetic mutations.

“That’s an important thing to consider, because it says that cancer isn’t inevitable,” Prof. Wishart says in a university release.

Cancer can become a ‘self-fueled disease’

The metabolome appears to be absolutely critical to the cancer-development process. Genetically mutated cancer cells are actually sustained and supported by the cancer-specific metabolome.

“Cancer is genetic, but often the mutation itself isn’t enough,” Prof. Wishart explains.

As cancer develops and spreads in the body, it creates its own environment and introduces certain metabolites.

“It becomes a self-fueled disease. And that’s where cancer as a metabolic disorder becomes really important.”

This “all in one” approach to cancer, in which the genome, exposome, and metabolome are all considered simultaneously, is beginning to show serious promise. Approaching cancer as a multi-faceted disease may produce more effective treatments in the future.

For instance, right now scientists focusing solely on the genetic perspective of cancer are attempting analyze specific mutations. However, there’s a problem. There are roughly 1,000 genes that can become cancerous upon mutation. Usually, two different mutations within these cells must occur for cancer to grow. So, that means there is literally a million potential mutation pairs. Researchers say this make such efforts “hopeless.”

However, if scientists analyze cancer from a more metabolic perspective, there are only four major metabolic types to choose from. That means doctors can determine a cancer patient’s metabolic type much easier, immediately helping physicians settle on the best possible cancer treatment for that specific patient.

“It really doesn’t make a difference where the cancer is — it’s something you’ve got to get rid of. It’s how it thrives or grows that matters,” Prof. Wishart adds. “It becomes a question of, ‘What’s the fuel that powers this engine?’”

Could changing our metabolism help defeat cancer?

In summation, Prof. Wishart notes that doctors still require a variety of therapeutics to choose from when it comes to cancer. Moreover, a better understanding of the metabolome and its role in the cancer feedback loop is necessary.

“If we understand the causes of cancer, then we can start highlighting the known causes, the lifestyle issues that introduce or increase our risk,” he concludes. “From the prevention side, changing our metabolism through lifestyle adjustments will make a huge difference in the incidence of cancer.”

The study is published in the journal Metabolites.

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