Monday, November 22, 2021

Too Much Research? Navigating the Overabundance of Genetic Links to Cancer


In 2013, there were almost 850,000 publications on cancer research in the PubMed database. As you can imagine, there are probably quite a bit more today. The abundance-- or overabundance depending on how you look at it-- of reported associations between genes and cancer has consequently made it more difficult for researchers to interpret large-scale analyses. Specifically, PubMed has at least one paper on over 17,000 genes, and almost 88% of those papers mention cancer. Beyond that, about a quarter of all genetically-focused publications mention cancer. This might be because of how easy it is to study cancer and genes. Dr. Joao Pedro de Magalhaes suspects that cancer is "more straightforward to study, given the wide availability of materials, such as cell lines." He also notes that the experimental methods necessary to study the disease have "lower technical limitations compared with many other disease scenarios."

But how could a wealth of knowledge on cancer be harmful to future research? There are a few potential issues. The first is that many of these cited gene/cancer associations imply that all genes are involved in cancer, which Dr. de Magalhaes claims is improbable. Since associations are not technically evident of causal relationships, too much of this type of research may create "unhelpful statistical noise" that makes productive analysis harder. Genome-wide studies and high-throughput analyses can capture inaccurate gene/cancer associates by letting genes (with no associations) "slip in" to the results. So while cancer research is a fantastic thing, researchers need to be mindful of any bias toward seeking gene associations. Dr. de Magalhaes says it best when noting that the "challenge is determining which [genes] are the key drivers of cancer and more promising therapeutic targets."

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