Sophia Nguyen in Harvard Magazine:
A new study of identical and fraternal twins by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers a clearer picture of how genetics and the environment influence cancer risk within a family. The researchers found that if one fraternal twin was diagnosed with cancer, the other was more likely to develop cancer as well—but not necessarily of the same type. Moreover, some of the strongest familial associations were seen for less common malignancies, like testicular cancer. The results, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association this week, provide new family-risk estimates for rarer conditions; previous studies (limited by size or follow-up time) were unable to arrive at reliable figures. When a fraternal twin was diagnosed with cancer, the other sibling’s risk of getting cancer—of any kind—increased by 5 percent. For identical twins, risk increased by 14 percent. Among cases where both siblings developed cancer, more than two-thirds developed different types. “The magnitude of that was a surprise to us,” reports Lorelai Mucci, associate professor of epidemiology and a co-lead author of the study. That finding adds to a growing body of research that shows “some hints that there might be a shared genetic predisposition to develop multiple cancers.” It’s been shown that prostate cancer and melanoma co-occur in families, for example.
The Nordic Twin Cancer Study is the largest familial study of cancer to date. Mucci and investigators at the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Helsinki examined the “twin registers”—health records gathered from more than 200,000 twins in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway between 1943 and 2010. The team compared the data from identical twins (who share all their genes) and fraternal twins (who, like ordinary siblings, share half) to determine the degree to which genetic factors (heritability) contribute to family risk. Significant heritability was found in skin melanoma (58 percent), prostate cancer (57 percent), non-melanoma skin cancer (43 percent), ovarian cancer (38 percent), kidney cancer (38 percent), breast cancer (31 percent), and uterine cancer (27 percent).