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First evidence direct from human stem cells provides new insight into cancer ‘lifestyle’ vs ‘bad luck debate

Worldwide Cancer Research scientist Dr Ruben van Boxtel and his team at UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands have gathered evidence directly from human stem cells which show that although accidental ‘bad luck’ may play a part in some cancers, it is perhaps not as much as has been previously suggested.

The work, published in Nature today, is particularly important because it is the first time that scientists have directly measured DNA mutations in adult human stem cells from different organs, and at different ages.

“We were surprised to find roughly the same mutation rate in stem cells from organs with different cancer incidence,” says Dr Ruben van Boxtel, lead researcher of the team. “This suggests that simply the gradual accumulation of more and more ‘bad luck’ DNA errors over time cannot explain the difference we see in cancer incidence – at least for some cancers.”

“Some organs are more prone to developing tumours than others,” says Dr Lara Bennett, Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research. “For example as many as 110 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed every day in the UK, compared to just 15 cases of liver cancer.”

“Lifestyle factors such as smoking and diet can account for part of the difference in cancer incidence, but researchers don’t yet fully know why some types of cancer are more common. This new research by Dr van Boxtel and his group is important because it provides actual measured data on the rate of DNA error accumulation in human stem cells for the first time, and shows that perhaps not as much cancer risk is down to this type of ‘bad luck’ process as has recently been suggested.”

Worldwide Cancer Research was a major funder on this project, which only started at the beginning of this year and has already yielded such important findings. You can read more about Dr van Boxtel's project with us here.

“The support from Worldwide Cancer Research made a huge difference to this project,” says Dr van Boxtel. “With this funding we were able to expand our aims. We could add more tissue samples from other organs, which was crucial to really make a link with cancer in a meaningful way, and begin to understand how these processes are involved in cancer.”

“I am immensely grateful to your supporters for helping to make this research possible.”

This new evidence from Dr van Boxtel and his team provides crucial insight into the controversial cancer ‘bad luck’ vs ‘lifestyle’ debate which first hit the headlines last year. You can read more about this latest research, and the story behind it, on our blog.