The genotype of the human cancer cell: Implications for risk analysis

Jerry R. Williams, James Russell, John F. Dicello, Mack H. Mabry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An extremely large database describes genotypes associated with the human cancer phenotype and genotypes of human populations with genetic predisposition to cancer. Aspects of this database are examined from the perspective of risk analysis, and the following conclusions and hypotheses are proposed: (1) The genotypes of human cancer cells are characterized by multiple mutated genes. Each type of cancer is characterized by a set of mutated genes, a subset from a total of more than 80 genes, that varies between tissue types and between different tumors from the same tissue. No single cancer-associated gene nor carcinogenic pathway appears suitable as an overall indicator whose induction serves as a quantitative marker for risk analysis. (2) Genetic defects that predispose human populations to cancer are numerous and diverse, and provide a model for associating cancer rates with induced genetic changes. As these syndromes contribute significantly to the overall cancer rate, risk analysis should include an estimation of the effect of putative carcinogens on individuals with genetic predisposition. (3) Gene activation and inactivation events are observed in the cancer genotype at different frequencies, and the potency of carcinogens to induce these events varies significantly. There is a paradox between the observed frequency for induction of single mutational events in test systems and the frequency of multiple events in a single cancer cell, suggesting events are not independent. Quantitative prediction of cancer risk will depend on identifying rate-limiting events in carcinogenesis. Hyperproliferation and hypermutation may be such events. (4) Four sets of data suggest that hypermutation may be an important carcinogenic process. Current mechanisms of risk analysis do not properly evaluate the potency of putative carcinogens to induce the hypermutable state or to increase mutation in hypermutable cells. (5) High-dose exposure to carcinogens in model systems changes patterns of gene expression and may induce protective effects through delay in cell progression and other processes that affect mutagenesis and toxicity. Paradigms in risk analysis that require extrapolation over wide ranges of exposure levels may be flawed mechanistically and may underestimate carcinogenic effects of test agents at environmental levels. Characteristics of the human cancer genotype suggest that approaches to risk analysis must be broadened to consider the multiplicity of carcinogenic pathways and the relative roles of hyperproliferation and hypermutation. Further, estimation of risk to general human populations must consider effects on hypersusceptible individuals. The extrapolation of effects over wide exposure levels is an imprecise process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-42
Number of pages26
JournalMutation Research - Reviews in Genetic Toxicology
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Sep 1996


  • DNA fidelity
  • carcinogenesis
  • mutation
  • risk assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Genetics

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