The Genetics of Cancer Risk

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One hundred years ago, decades before the discovery of the structure of DNA, debate raged regarding how human traits were passed from one generation to the next. Phenotypes, including risk of disease, had long been recognized as having a familial component. Yet it was difficult to reconcile genetic segregation as described by Mendel with observations exhaustively documented by Karl Pearson and others regarding the normal distribution of human characteristics. In 1918, R. A. Fisher published his landmark article, “The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance,” bridging this divide and demonstrating that multiple alleles, all individually obeying Mendel’s laws, account for the phenotypic variation observed in nature.Since that time, geneticists have sought to identify the link between genotype and phenotype. Trait-associated alleles vary in their frequency and degree of penetrance. Some minor alleles may approach a frequency of 50% in the human population, whereas others are present within only a few individuals. The spectrum for penetrance is similarly wide. These characteristics jointly determine the segregation pattern of a given trait, which, in turn, determine the method used to map the trait. Until recently, identification of rare, highly penetrant alleles was most practical. Revolutionary studies in genomics reported over the past decade have made interrogation of most of the spectrum of genetic variation feasible.The following article reviews recent discoveries in the genetic basis of inherited cancer risk and how these discoveries inform cancer biology and patient management. Although this article focuses on prostate cancer, the principles are generic for any cancer and, indeed, for any trait.

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