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Greater Cancer Risk for Taller People is Near Entirely Due to Having More Cells

There has been some debate in the research community as to whether the observed relationship between cancer risk and height in our species is due to (a) taller people having more cells, and thus more chances to suffer a cancerous mutation, or (b) some more indirect factor, such as, for example, the role of growth hormone in cellular metabolism. The author of this study marshals data to argue convincingly for the former hypothesis, for most forms of cancer.

The multistage model of carcinogenesis predicts cancer risk will increase with tissue size, since more cells provide more targets for oncogenic somatic mutation. However, this increase is not seen among mammal species of different sizes (Peto's paradox), a paradox argued to be due to larger species evolving added cancer suppression. If this explanation is correct, the cell number effect is still expected within species.

Consistent with this, the hazard ratio for overall cancer risk per 10cm increase in human height (HR10) is about 1.1, indicating a 10% increase in cancer risk per 10cm; however, an alternative explanation invokes an indirect effect of height, with factors that increase cancer risk independently increasing adult height.

The data from four large-scale surveillance projects on 23 cancer categories were tested against quantitative predictions of the cell-number hypothesis, predictions that were accurately supported. For overall cancer risk the HR10 predicted versus observed was 1.13 versus 1.12 for women and 1.11 versus 1.09 for men, suggesting that cell number variation provides a null hypothesis for assessing height effects.

Melanoma showed an unexpectedly strong relationship to height, indicating an additional effect, perhaps due to an increasing cell division rate mediated through increasing IGF-I with height. Similarly, only about one-third of the higher incidence of non-reproductive cancers in men versus women can be explained by cell number. The cancer risks of obesity are not correlated with effects of height, consistent with different primary causation.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.1743

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