You are reading Tumors, bad luck has nothing to do with it: an Italian study redefines the role of genetics


Tumors, bad luck has nothing to do with it: an Italian study redefines the role of genetics

June 11, 2019

It has put the key role of prevention back at the centre and re-dimensioned the belief that getting cancer is a destiny written in DNA. The Italian study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics, the result of the work of the researchers of the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) and the State University of Milan in collaboration with the University Federico II of Naples, has reopened a very heated debate, stating that getting cancer, is not a matter of bad luck. Behind the most significant alterations of the DNA, in fact, there are external factors on which it is possible to intervene. We talked about it with Dr. Giovanna Masci, oncologist and haematologist of Humanitas.


Cancer, chance has nothing to do with it: lifestyle and environment are to be considered

Except for rare cases of high genetic predisposition (which usually go hand in hand with a greater awareness of the risk of developing the disease and therefore of playing in advance), getting sick with cancer does not seem to be attributable either to chance or to the misfortune that has reserved for us an adverse fate. Some of the most frequent and important DNA alterations in the development of cancer would be caused by the lifestyle and the environment around us. Assumptions that, if confirmed, could represent a decisive turning point in the debate in the scientific community in 2016 by the authoritative studies of Bert Vogelstein of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, according to which two genetic mutations out of three in cancers were due to random errors and therefore inevitable. Not only that. Researchers at the IEO in Milan would powerfully put the role of prevention back at the center.


The role of DNA in the onset of the cancer

It must be said, however, that tumors are not only triggered by mutations, that is, by small changes in the structure of genes. Other alterations, including the so-called chromosome translocations due to the rupture of the double helix of the DNA that leads to the exchange of parts between chromosomes and, sometimes, even to the fusion of two ‘broken’ genes, also cause cancer.

“Studying the normal and tumor cells of the breast – says Gaetano Ivan Dellino, a researcher at IEO and the University of Milan – we have discovered that neither DNA damage nor translocations occur by chance: we can predict which genes will break with an accuracy of more than 85%. However, only a small part of them will then result in translocations. The central issue, which changes the perspective of cancer randomness, is that the activity of those genes is controlled by specific signals that come from the environment in which our cells are located, and that in turn is influenced by the environment in which we live and by our behavior”.


Medical science leads back to individual responsibility

“There is no scientific basis that authorizes us to hope in luck to avoid getting cancer – added Piergiuseppe Pelicci, director of research at IEO and professor of general pathology at the University of Milan – We have one more reason now not to relax the grip on prevention: in our lifestyles, in the type of world we expect, in the health programs that we need from our health service, even in the type of scientific research that we want to promote. However, the researchers are still working on the signals to pay attention to: “For now we have not understood exactly what induces the formation of translocations, but we have understood that it comes from the environment. It is possible that the same mechanism, or a similar one, could also be the basis of the mutations studied by Vogelstein: we are working on it”.

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