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Semin Cancer Biol. 2004 Dec;14(6):399-405.

Multistep and multifactorial carcinogenesis: when does a contributing factor become a carcinogen?

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  • 1Department of Pathology, Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola University Chicago, Room 250, 2160 South First Ave, Maywood, IL 60302, USA.


Our greatest successes in fighting cancer derive from the identification and removal or inactivation of carcinogenic substances, and from the identification and removal of pre-malignant lesions. In comparison, our successes at treating already formed malignancies have been minimal. Therefore, emphasis should be put in identifying and removing pre-malignant lesions, and in the identification and removal of those agents that cause or contribute to cancer development. It is important to target initiators, co-carcinogens and promoters, since by removing any one of them, tumor growth may be prevented. Identification of these agents is difficult. Epidemiological studies largely study cancer after it has occurred. It would be preferable to identify potential carcinogenic substances at an earlier stage before they have caused a large number of malignancies and thus become identifiable by epidemiology. During the past three decades, we have accumulated an impressive amount of evidence concerning molecular pathways that when altered contribute to malignant growth. It is time that we start applying this knowledge to the identification of human carcinogens. Here, we review the molecular changes that are required for carcinogenesis and propose some criteria that, in the absence of epidemiological evidence, can be used to identify agents that cause or contribute to human cancer development. In the absence of epidemiological evidence, a given agent should be considered a human carcinogen when: (1) the agent causes or contributes to the development of tumors in animals that are of the same type as those tumors associated with exposure to the agent in humans; (2) the agent transforms or contributes to the transformation of human cells in culture and these cells are of the same type from which associated human malignancies arise; (3) there is molecular evidence that the agent interferes with one or more key molecular pathways in human cells which leads to the formation of human cancer.

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