Environmental and chemical carcinogenesis

Gerald N. Wogan, Stephen S. Hecht, James S. Felton, Allan H. Conney, Lawrence A. Loeb

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People are continuously exposed exogenously to varying amounts of chemicals that have been shown to have carcinogenic or mutagenic properties in experimental systems. Exposure can occur exogenously when these agents are present in food, air or water, and also endogenously when they are products of metabolism or pathophysiologic states such as inflammation. It has been estimated that exposure to environmental chemical carcinogens may contribute significantly to the causation of a sizable fraction, perhaps a majority, of human cancers, when exposures are related to "life-style" factors such as diet, tobacco use, etc. This chapter summarizes several aspects of environmental chemical carcinogenesis that have been extensively studied and illustrates the power of mechanistic investigation combined with molecular epidemiologic approaches in establishing causative linkages between environmental exposures and increased cancer risks. A causative relationship between exposure to aflatoxin, a strongly carcinogenic mold-produced contaminant of dietary staples in Asia and Africa, and elevated risk for primary liver cancer has been demonstrated through the application of well-validated biomarkers in molecular epidemiology. These studies have also identified a striking synergistic interaction between aflatoxin and hepatitis B virus infection in elevating liver cancer risk. Use of tobacco products provides a clear example of cancer causation by a life-style factor involving carcinogen exposure. Tobacco carcinogens and their DNA adducts are central to cancer induction by tobacco products, and the contribution of specific tobacco carcinogens (e.g. PAH and NNK) to tobacco-induced lung cancer, can be evaluated by a weight of evidence approach. Factors considered include presence in tobacco products, carcinogenicity in laboratory animals, human uptake, metabolism and adduct formation, possible role in causing molecular changes in oncogenes or suppressor genes, and other relevant data. This approach can be applied to evaluation of other environmental carcinogens, and the evaluations would be markedly facilitated by prospective epidemiologic studies incorporating phenotypic carcinogen-specific biomarkers. Heterocyclic amines represent an important class of carcinogens in foods. They are mutagens and carcinogens at numerous organ sites in experimental animals, are produced when meats are heated above 180°C for long periods. Four of these compounds can consistently be identified in well-done meat products from the North American diet, and although a causal linkage has not been established, a majority of epidemiology studies have linked consumption of well-done meat products to cancer of the colon, breast and stomach. Studies employing molecular biomarkers suggest that individuals may differ in their susceptibility to these carcinogens, and genetic polymorphisms may contribute to this variability. Heterocyclic amines, like most other chemical carcinogens, are not carcinogenic per se but must be metabolized by a family of cytochrome P450 enzymes to chemically reactive electrophiles prior to reacting with DNA to initiate a carcinogenic response. These same cytochrome P450 enzymes - as well as enzymes that act on the metabolic products of the cytochromes P450 (e.g. glucuronyl transferase, glutathione S-transferase and others) - also metabolize chemicals by inactivation pathways, and the relative amounts of activation and detoxification will determine whether a chemical is carcinogenic. Because both genetic and environmental factors influence the levels of enzymes that metabolically activate and detoxify chemicals, they can also influence carcinogenic risk. Many of the phenotypes of cancer cells can be the result of mutations, i.e., changes in the nucleotide sequence of DNA that accumulate as tumors progress. These can arise as a result of DNA damage or by the incorporation of non-complementary nucleotides during DNA synthetic processes. Based upon the disparity between the infrequency of spontaneous mutations and the large numbers of mutations reported in human tumors, it has been postulated that cancers must exhibit a mutator phenotype, which would represent an early event in cancer progression. A mutator phenotype could be generated by mutations in genes that normally function to guarantee genetic stability. These mutations presumably arise via DNA damage by environmental or endogenous agents, but it remains to be determined whether the acquisition of a mutator phenotype is a necessary event during tumor progression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-486
Number of pages14
JournalSeminars in Cancer Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Studies in the authors’ laboratories were supported by the following grants: P01ES06052 from NIEHS (GNW); CA81301 and CA92025 from NCI and RP-00-138 from the American Cancer Society (SSH); DOE contract W-7405-ENG-48 from the Department of Energy, P30CA93373, P01CA55861 and CA94709 from NCI (JSF); CA49756, CA80759 and P01CA88961 from NCI (AHC); CA80993 and CA84087 from NCI and ES11045 from NIEHS (LAL).


  • Aflatoxin
  • Carcinogen metabolism
  • Colon cancer
  • Genetic polymorphism
  • Hepatitis viruses
  • Heterocyclic amines
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mutator phenotype
  • Tobacco carcinogens


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