Cell size and cancer: a new solution to Peto's paradox?

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Abstract

Cancer, one of the leading health concerns for humans, is by no means a human-unique malady. Accumulating evidence shows that cancer kills domestic and wild animals at a similar rate to humans and can even pose a conservation threat to certain species. Assuming that each physiologically active and proliferating cell is at risk of malignant transformation, any evolutionary increase in the number of cells (and thus body mass) will lead to a higher cancer frequency, all else being equal. However, available data fail to support the prediction that bigger animals are affected by cancer more than smaller ones. The unexpected lack of correlation between body size (and life span) and cancer risk across taxa was dubbed Peto's paradox. In this perspective, several plausible explanations of Peto's paradox are presented, with the emphasis on a largely underappreciated relation of cell size to both metabolism and cell division rates across species, which we believe are key factors underlying the paradox. We conclude that larger organisms have bigger and slowly dividing cells with lower energy turnover, all significantly reducing the risk of cancer initiation. Solving Peto's paradox will enhance our understanding the evolution of cancer and may provide new implications for cancer prevention and treatment.

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