As man has moved rapidly from the hunter-gatherer environment to the living conditions of the industrialized countries, the incidences of some cancers have increased alarmingly. Recent increases are usually attributed to dietary changes or to altered exposures to putative carcinogens associated with the modern lifestyle. However, the changes in cancer incidence parallel similar increases in non-neoplastic chronic inflammatory disorders (inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, and autoimmunity), and the epidemiology is often strikingly similar. This parallel is worth exploring, because the increases in chronic inflammatory disorders are at least partly explained by immunoregulatory defects resulting from diminished exposure to microorganisms that co-evolved with mammals and developed a role in driving immunoregulatory circuits (the hygiene hypothesis). Dysregulated chronic inflammation can drive oncogenesis and also provides growth and angiogenic factors that enhance the subsequent proliferation and spread of tumor cells. Thus, a modern failure to downregulate inappropriate inflammation could underlie increases in some cancers in parallel with the increases in chronic inflammatory disorders. This possibility is supported by recent work showing that in some circumstances regulatory T cells protect against cancer, rather than aggravating it, as previously assumed. A greater understanding of these interactions might pave the way to improved microbe-based immunotherapies.
© 2011 John Wiley & Sons A/S.