Professorial Lecturer Coauthors Letter Published in Science

The role that environmental factors play in initiating cancer is the subject of a letter published in Science by a group including George Washington University Professorial Lecturer Jennifer Sass.  Jennifer Sass is a Senior Scientist in the Health and Environment program of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental non-profit organization and she is a professorial lecturer for the Milken Institute School of Public Health Environmental and Occupational Health Department. As Sass states in a blog on the same topic, the letter stresses that cancer is not mostly bad luck.

Sass and her coauthors argue that a report by Tomasetti and Volgelstein recently published in Science overstates the importance of random mutations and understates the role of prevention in cancer causation.  It is widely acknowledged that many cancers can be explained by a two-step process, they say.  The first step is initiation by one or a series of mutations, followed by the promotion of the genetic “mistake” to a recognizable tumor or blood disease, they point out. 

There is overwhelming evidence that limiting exposures to environmental factors including diesel exhaust, asbestos, some viruses, alcohol, radiation, second-hand smoke, and chemicals such as formaldehyde can prevent cancer and other life-threatening diseases.  “An environmental influence can in fact create a DNA change which, if present when the DNA is copied, is subsequently ‘fixed’ into the genome as a permanent change,” Sass and her coauthors point out. 

Support for the letter’s contention that a large fraction of cancers are influenced by environmental factors includes the fact that age-adjust cancer rates for different tissues vary substantially among countries where statistics are kept, and between workplaces or communities that differ in environmental exposures.

As Sass points out in her blog, other responses to the Tomasetti and Vogelstein article include a public statement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which states that it “strongly disagrees” with their conclusions.  


Photo Credit:  Michal Hrabovec, Creative Commons