Environmental, occupational, and recreational exposures to carcinogens contribute to cancer risk in humans. Cancer formation is a multistage process involving tumor initiation, promotion, conversion, and progression. Carcinogens can affect any of these stages through genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. The association of a suspected carcinogenic exposure and cancer risk can be studied in populations with classic epidemiologic techniques. However, these techniques are not applicable to the assessment of risk in individuals. Molecular epidemiology, in contrast, is a field that integrates molecular biology, in vitro and in vivo laboratory models, biochemistry, and epidemiology to infer individual cancer risk. Carcinogen-macromolecular adduct levels, and somatic cell mutations can be measured to determine the biologically effective dose of a carcinogen. Molecular epidemiology also explores host cancer susceptibilities, such as carcinogen metabolic activation, DNA repair, endogenous mutation rates, and inheritance of mutated tumor suppressor genes. Substantial interindividual variation for each of these biologic end points has been shown and, therefore, highlights the need for assessing cancer risk on an individual basis. Given the pace of the last decade, it is feasible that the next 10 years will allow molecular epidemiologists to develop a cancer-risk profile for an individual that includes assessment of a number of factors. This will help focus preventive strategies and strengthen quantitative risk assessments.
Shields PG, Harris CC. Molecular Epidemiology and the Genetics of Environmental Cancer. JAMA. 1991;266(5):681-687. doi:10.1001/jama.1991.03470050081027