Colorectal cancer: molecules and populations

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999 Jun 2;91(11):916-32. doi: 10.1093/jnci/91.11.916.


The epidemiology and molecular biology of colorectal cancer are reviewed with a view to understanding their interrelationship. Risk factors for colorectal neoplasia include a positive family history, meat consumption, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Important inverse associations exist with vegetables, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), hormone replacement therapy, and physical activity. There are several molecular pathways to colorectal cancer, especially the APC (adenomatous polyposis coli)-beta-catenin-Tcf (T-cell factor; a transcriptional activator) pathway and the pathway involving abnormalities of DNA mismatch repair. These are important, both in inherited syndromes (familial adenomatous polyposis [FAP] and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer [HNPCC], respectively) and in sporadic cancers. Other less well defined pathways exist. Expression of key genes in any of these pathways may be lost by inherited or acquired mutation or by hypermethylation. The roles of several of the environmental exposures in the molecular pathways either are established (e.g., inhibition of cyclooxygenase-2 by NSAIDs) or are suggested (e.g., meat and tobacco smoke as sources of specific blood-borne carcinogens; vegetables as a source of folate, antioxidants, and inducers of detoxifying enzymes). The roles of other factors (e.g., physical activity) remain obscure even when the epidemiology is quite consistent. There is also evidence that some metabolic pathways, e.g., those involving folate and heterocyclic amines, may be modified by polymorphisms in relevant genes, e.g., MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) and NAT1 (N-acetyltransferase 1) and NAT2. There is at least some evidence that the general host metabolic state can provide a milieu that enhances or reduces the likelihood of cancer progression. Understanding the roles of environmental exposures and host susceptibilities in molecular pathways has implications for screening, treatment, surveillance, and prevention.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenomatous Polyposis Coli / genetics
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / administration & dosage
  • Colonic Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Colonic Neoplasms / etiology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Colorectal Neoplasms, Hereditary Nonpolyposis / genetics
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Exercise
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Male
  • Physical Exertion
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Rectal Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Rectal Neoplasms / etiology
  • Reproduction
  • Sex Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones