The science of large numbers  pg. 6

“What that means is that you just have to keep doing different studies, studying different kinds of people and gathering more specific information and making sure you see as large a number of people as you can.”

Pooling results from cohort studies that involve different population groups also can yield valuable insights.

Researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, for example, are planning to compare findings from their Mexican-American Health Study with those from a Native American cohort study in South Dakota.

“We’re enrolling families, ages 5 to over 90,” says Melissa Bondy, Ph.D., professor of Epidemiology and principal investigator of the Mexican-American Health Study. “The onset of breast cancer occurs at much younger ages in Mexican-American women than in white or African-American women. And there is a high rate of diabetes in the population.

“The rate of smoking among Mexican-American women is very low, but we’re seeing it in girls,” Bondy says. “We’re seeing kids as young as 11 and 12 years old already experimenting with smoking tobacco.”

While the goal of this study is to identify risk factors associated with disease patterns within Mexican and Mexican-American populations, “comparisons across groups with ethnic and cultural differences may help explain determinants of the differences in disease rates across these groups,” Blot points out.

Blot hopes eventually the studies will identify certain subsets of people who are more likely than others, because of their genes, to respond to lifestyle and environmental exposures that put them at an increased risk.

“If you know that some people have an increased risk, then we can advise them to avoid certain exposures,” he says. “You could advise those at high risk to be under increased surveillance for early detection of a cancer. For, even if you can’t prevent the cancer, at least you may be able to catch it early when the disease is more amenable to successful treatment.”

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