Cancer in twins: genetic and nongenetic familial risk factors

A Ahlbom, P Lichtenstein, H Malmström, M Feychting, K Hemminki, N L Pedersen
Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1997 February 19, 89 (4): 287-93

BACKGROUND: Familial clustering has been observed for cancers that occur at specific sites. Most findings, which leave little doubt about the involvement of a heritable (i.e., genetic) component in the development of some cancers, are based on data from "cancer-prone" families or interviews with subjects who have cancer. The study of twins should be of value in cancer epidemiology because twins either are genetically identical or share half of their segregating genes.

PURPOSE: We linked the Swedish Twin Registry to the Swedish Cancer Registry, thereby identifying cases of cancer diagnosed from 1959 through 1992 in twins born in the period from 1886 through 1958, to assess the importance of both genetic and nongenetic (i.e., environmental) familial factors in determining cancer risk.

METHODS: Same-sex twin pairs with both individuals alive and living in Sweden in 1959-1961 or 1970-1972 were identified in the old cohort (born from 1886 through 1925) or the young cohort (born from 1926 through 1958), respectively, of the Swedish Twin Registry; pairs for whom zygosity (i.e., the number of eggs that gave rise to the twins) could be determined were considered further. The association of cancer with combined genetic and nongenetic familial factors was tested by comparing all twin pairs (regardless of zygosity) in which at least one member of the pair had been diagnosed with cancer at one of several specific sites with pairs in which neither twin had that cancer. Heritable effects alone were tested by comparing monozygotic (one egg) and dizygotic (two eggs) twin pairs. Statistical methods used in quantitative genetics and standard methods for epidemiologic research were used in parallel to analyze the data.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: In the 10503 twin pairs from the old cohort, 361.7 cases of malignant cancer were identified; 918 malignant cancers were identified in the 12883 twin pairs from the young cohort. When cancer sites with a total number of at least 200 cases and at least one twin pair concordant (i.e., both twins affected) for the site were evaluated, namely, cancers of the stomach, colon and rectum, lung, female breast, and prostate, as well as total cancer, profound genetic and/or nongenetic familial effects were identified in twins from the old cohort. Similar findings were obtained for twins in the young cohort for cancers of the prostate and female breast, as well as for total cancer. Genetic and nongenetic familial effects were also identified in twins from both cohorts for in situ cancer of the cervix. The increase in risk of colon and rectum, breast, cervical, and especially prostate cancer, but not stomach or lung cancer, tended to be greater if a monozygotic rather than a dizygotic twin were affected.

IMPLICATIONS: The identification of familial effects for total cancer in this study is consistent with the idea that individuals may possess a genetic susceptibility to cancer in general.

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