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J Natl Cancer Inst. 2000 Jul 19;92(14):1151-8.

Population stratification in epidemiologic studies of common genetic variants and cancer: quantification of bias.

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  • 1Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-7244, USA.



Some critics argue that bias from population stratification (the mixture of individuals from heterogeneous genetic backgrounds) undermines the credibility of epidemiologic studies designed to estimate the association between a genotype and the risk of disease. We investigated the degree of bias likely from population stratification in U.S. studies of cancer among non-Hispanic Caucasians of European origin.


An expression of the confounding risk ratio-the ratio of the effect of the genetic factor on risk of disease with and without adjustment for ethnicity-is used to measure the potential relative bias from population stratification. We first use empirical data on the frequency of the N-acetyltransferase (NAT2) slow acetylation genotype and incidence rates of male bladder cancer and female breast cancer in non-Hispanic U.S. Caucasians with ancestries from eight European countries to assess the bias in a hypothetical population-based U.S. study that does not take ethnicity into consideration. Then, we provide theoretical calculations of the bias over a large range of allele frequencies and disease rates.


Ignoring ethnicity leads to a bias of 1% or less in our empirical studies of NAT2. Furthermore, evaluation of a wide range of allele frequencies and representative ranges of cancer rates that exist across European populations shows that the risk ratio is biased by less than 10% in U.S. studies except under extreme conditions. We note that the bias decreases as the number of ethnic strata increases.


There will be only a small bias from population stratification in a well-designed case-control study of genetic factors that ignores ethnicity among non-Hispanic U.S. Caucasians of European origin. Further work is needed to estimate the effect of population stratification within other populations.

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