Drug Use and Cancer Risk: A Drug-Wide Association Study (DWAS) in Norway

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2021 Apr;30(4):682-689. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-20-1028. Epub 2020 Nov 3.


Background: Population-based pharmaco-epidemiologic studies are used to assess postmarketing drug safety and discover beneficial effects of off-label drug use. We conducted a drug-wide association study (DWAS) to screen for associations between prescription drugs and cancer risk.

Methods: This registry-based, nested case-control study, 1:10 matched on age, sex, and date of diagnosis of cases, comprises approximately 2 million Norwegian residents, including their drug history from 2004 to 2014. We evaluated the association between prescribed drugs, categorized according to the anatomical therapeutic chemical (ATC) classification system, and the risk of the 15 most common cancer types, overall and by histology. We used stratified Cox regression, adjusted for other drug use, comorbidity, county, and parity, and explored dose-response trends.

Results: We found 145 associations among 1,230 drug-cancer combinations on the ATC2-level and 77 of 8,130 on the ATC4-level. Results for all drug-cancer combinations are presented in this article and an online tool (https://pharmacoepi.shinyapps.io/drugwas/). Some associations have been previously reported, that is, menopausal hormones and breast cancer risk, or are likely confounded, that is, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancer risk. Other associations were novel, that is, inverse association between proton pump inhibitors and melanoma risk, and carcinogenic association of propulsives and lung cancer risk.

Conclusions: This study confirmed previously reported associations and generated new hypotheses on possible carcinogenic or chemopreventive effects of prescription drugs. Results from this type of explorative approach need to be validated in tailored epidemiologic and preclinical studies.

Impact: DWAS studies are robust and important tools to define new drug-cancer hypotheses.See related commentary by Wang and Gadalla, p. 597.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Melanoma*
  • Norway / epidemiology
  • Off-Label Use
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations*
  • Pregnancy


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations