Invited Commentary: More Surprises From a Gene Desert

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Pleiotropy across the 8q24 region is perhaps the most intriguing of the genome-wide association findings relating to cancer. This region of chromosome 8 is a gene desert, far from any recognized genes. Guarrera et al., whose work is reported in this issue (Am J Epidemiol. 2012;175(6):479–487), took an epidemiologic approach to learn more about the 8q24 region. They capitalized on their ascertainment of other endpoints in members of the cohort at the Turin site of the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition to investigate multiple outcomes for additional pleiotropic effects in the 8q24 region. Alternative design options might involve genotyping of more variants, incorporation of more cases, or use of a single control group close to the size of the most common case group. Their analytic methods reflect the uncertainty of the underlying biology. The findings sharpen the scientific question about how variation in the 8q24 region affects pathogenesis. The genome-wide association effort is possible because of the economy of scale afforded by extremely dense genotyping. Strict adherence to the hypothesis-driven approach would ignore information that is obtainable at a trivial cost. The genome-wide association strategy tests whether agnostic data-mining methods can advance knowledge alongside or even in place of the standard hypothesis-driven approach, which is the conventional scientific method children learn in kindergarten and onward, even through graduate school and beyond.

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