This Introduction provides a broad overview of the scientific advances and crosscutting developments that increasingly influence epidemiologic research on the causes and prevention of cancer. High-throughput technologies have identified the molecular “driver” events in tumor tissue that underlie the multistage development of many types of cancer. These somatic (largely acquired) alterations disrupt normal genetic and epigenetic control over cell maintenance, division and survival. Tumor classification is also changing to reflect the genetic and molecular alterations in tumor tissue, as well as the anatomic, morphologic, and histologic phenotype of the cancer. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified more than 700 germline (inherited) genetic loci associated with susceptibility to various forms of cancer, although the risk estimates for almost all of these are small to modest and their exact location and function remain to identified. Advances in genomic and other “OMIC” technologies are identifying biomarkers that reflect internal exposures, biological processes and intermediate outcomes in large population studies. While research in many of these areas is still in its infancy, mechanistic and molecular assays are increasingly incorporated into etiologic studies and inferences about causation. Other sections of the book discuss the global public health impact of cancer, the growing list of exposures known to affect cancer risk, the epidemiology of over 30 types of cancer by tissue of origin, and preventive interventions that have dramatically reduced the incidence rates of several major cancers.
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