Skip to main content

When discussing the relationship between DNA mutations and cancer, it is mandatory to differentiate between germline mutations and somatic mutations. The former are hereditary mutations that have been associated with the risk of cancer development; they occur in germ cells (cells that will give rise to sperm or eggs) and are passed onto every cell of the offspring. BRCA 1 and 2 mutations stand as examples of germline mutations associated with breast cancer susceptibility. In contrast, somatic mutations are acquired, nonheritable, changes in DNA sequence in cells other than germ cells. They occur after conception, cannot be passed onto offspring, and develop in specific tissues (e.g. breast or lung). Only a limited percentage of cancers have a clear hereditary component, and even in those cases in which cancer susceptibility is clearly inherited, acquired mutations are needed for cancer to develop.

In particular, the progressive accumulation of somatic mutations can lead to cancer and is indicative of genomic instability. Contrary to germline mutations, genomic instability is not a marker of the risk of cancer; rather, it is indicative of the cancer prodromal stage. Researchers already gave proof of concept that genomic instability analysis is useful to assess the cancer prodromal stage. And, fortunately, genomic instability is preventable and actionable. Nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics are interesting tools to avoid genomic instability through a simple approach based on lifestyle. Genome integrity has been shown to be highly sensitive to nutrient status, with optimal nutrient levels differing among individuals.

Biomarkers of genome integrity can be utilized to establish recommended daily intakes for nutrients; in turn, optimizing nutrient intake plays a significant role in stabilizing the genome. For example, in smokers, carotenoid consumption correlates to lung cancer incidence, and β-carotene supplements are associated with a significant increase in mortality; cell cultures studies suggest that any concentration of non-vitamin A carotenoids tends to decrease DNA damage, whereas high concentrations of provitamin A carotenoids such as β-carotene tend to increase it. Vitamin B3 deficiency impairs the function of critical DNA repair enzymes (in particular, PARP proteins), and folate deficiency (especially if combined with suboptimal vitamin B6 and B12 levels) may lead to DNA breaks and telomere shortening. In the presence of oxidative stress, vitamin C correlates with various markers of genome stability.

Meanwhile, vitamin D and selenium concentrations are critical in the maintenance of genome stability too. In particular, both vitamin D and selenium possibly protect against chromosomal and telomere aberrations. Cells supplemented with selenium showed reduced DNA breakage, and vitamin D could counteract oxidative stress. Also, food components can help to increase DDR activity. For instance, resveratrol, which is a polyphenol present in fruits and other vegetable foods (for example in grapes, berries, and peanuts) may activate Sirt1 (sirtuin 1), a DDR repair-activating enzyme. In mice with reduced Sirt1, resveratrol treatment was associated with reduced cancer development. In a similar way, certain medications are associated with a reduction in genome instability. In particular, when a patient with Barrett’s esophagus starts taking NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti- Inflammatory Drugs) their somatic copy number alterations rate drops by an order of magnitude.