Genes and family environment in familial clustering of cancer

Familial clustering of a disease is defined as the occurrence of the disease within some families in excess of what would be expected from the occurrence in the population. It has been demonstrated for several cancer types, ranging from rare cancers as the adenomatosis-coli-associated colon cancer or the Li-Fraumeni syndrome to more common cancers as breast cancer and colon cancer. Familial clustering, however, is merely an epidemiological pattern, and it does not tell whether genetic or environmental causes or both in combination are responsible for the familial clustering. Familial clustering may be due to genetic predisposition to the disease, but exposure to environmental factors — shared by members of some families, but not by members of other families — may also cause familial clustering and hence mimic genetic inheritance in the study of nuclear families. Based on assumptions regarding the individual steps in the biological process starting with exposure to carcinogens and ending with death from disseminated cancer we suggest that genetic and environmental factors may both be involved in most of these steps. The present paper focuses on research methodologies necessary to discriminate between the effect of genes and family environment in the development of cancer.
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