Preamble to the IARC Monographs


4. Mechanistic and other relevant data

Mechanistic and other relevant data may provide evidence of carcinogenicity and also help in assessing the relevance and importance of findings of cancer in animals and in humans. The nature of the mechanistic and other relevant data depends on the biological activity of the agent being considered. The Working Group considers representative studies to give a concise description of the relevant data and issues that they consider to be important; thus, not every available study is cited. Relevant topics may include toxicokinetics, mechanisms of carcinogenesis, susceptible individuals, populations and life-stages, other relevant data and other adverse effects. When data on biomarkers are informative about the mechanisms of carcinogenesis, they are included in this section.

These topics are not mutually exclusive; thus, the same studies may be discussed in more than one subsection. For example, a mutation in a gene that codes for an enzyme that metabolizes the agent under study could be discussed in the subsections on toxicokinetics, mechanisms and individual susceptibility if it also exists as an inherited polymorphism.

(a) Toxicokinetic data

Toxicokinetics refers to the absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of agents in humans, experimental animals and, where relevant, cellular systems. Examples of kinetic factors that may affect dose-response relationships include uptake, deposition, biopersistence and half-life in tissues, protein binding, metabolic activation and detoxification. Studies that indicate the metabolic fate of the agent in humans and in experimental animals are summarized briefly, and comparisons of data from humans and animals are made when possible. Comparative information on the relationship between exposure and the dose that reaches the target site may be important for the extrapolation of hazards between species and in clarifying the role of in-vitro findings.

(b) Data on mechanisms of carcinogenesis

To provide focus, the Working Group attempts to identify the possible mechanisms by which the agent may increase the risk of cancer. For each possible mechanism, a representative selection of key data from humans and experimental systems is summarized. Attention is given to gaps in the data and to data that suggests that more than one mechanism may be operating. The relevance of the mechanism to humans is discussed, in particular, when mechanistic data are derived from experimental model systems. Changes in the affected organs, tissues or cells can be divided into three non-exclusive levels as described below.

(i) Changes in physiology

Physiological changes refer to exposure-related modifications to the physiology and/or response of cells, tissues and organs. Examples of potentially adverse physiological changes include mitogenesis, compensatory cell division, escape from apoptosis and/or senescence, presence of inflammation, hyperplasia, metaplasia and/or preneoplasia, angiogenesis, alterations in cellular adhesion, changes in steroidal hormones and changes in immune surveillance.

(ii) Functional changes at the cellular level

Functional changes refer to exposure-related alterations in the signalling pathways used by cells to manage critical processes that are related to increased risk for cancer. Examples of functional changes include modified activities of enzymes involved in the metabolism of xenobiotics, alterations in the expression of key genes that regulate DNA repair, alterations in cyclin-dependent kinases that govern cell cycle progression, changes in the patterns of post-translational modifications of proteins, changes in regulatory factors that alter apoptotic rates, changes in the secretion of factors related to the stimulation of DNA replication and transcription and changes in gap-junction-mediated intercellular communication.

(iii) Changes at the molecular level

Molecular changes refer to exposure-related changes in key cellular structures at the molecular level, including, in particular, genotoxicity. Examples of molecular changes include formation of DNA adducts and DNA strand breaks, mutations in genes, chromosomal aberrations, aneuploidy and changes in DNA methylation patterns. Greater emphasis is given to irreversible effects.

The use of mechanistic data in the identification of a carcinogenic hazard is specific to the mechanism being addressed and is not readily described for every possible level and mechanism discussed above.

Genotoxicity data are discussed here to illustrate the key issues involved in the evaluation of mechanistic data.

Tests for genetic and related effects are described in view of the relevance of gene mutation and chromosomal aberration/aneuploidy to carcinogenesis (Vainio et al., 1992; McGregor et al., 1999). The adequacy of the reporting of sample characterization is considered and, when necessary, commented upon; with regard to complex mixtures, such comments are similar to those described for animal carcinogenicity tests. The available data are interpreted critically according to the end-points detected, which may include DNA damage, gene mutation, sister chromatid exchange, micronucleus formation, chromosomal aberrations and aneuploidy. The concentrations employed are given, and mention is made of whether the use of an exogenous metabolic system in vitro affected the test result. These data are listed in tabular form by phylogenetic classification.

Positive results in tests using prokaryotes, lower eukaryotes, insects, plants and cultured mammalian cells suggest that genetic and related effects could occur in mammals. Results from such tests may also give information on the types of genetic effect produced and on the involvement of metabolic activation. Some end-points described are clearly genetic in nature (e.g. gene mutations), while others are associated with genetic effects (e.g. unscheduled DNA synthesis). In-vitro tests for tumour promotion, cell transformation and gap-junction intercellular communication may be sensitive to changes that are not necessarily the result of genetic alterations but that may have specific relevance to the process of carcinogenesis. Critical appraisals of these tests have been published (Montesano et al., 1986; McGregor et al., 1999).

Genetic or other activity manifest in humans and experimental mammals is regarded to be of greater relevance than that in other organisms. The demonstration that an agent can induce gene and chromosomal mutations in mammals in vivo indicates that it may have carcinogenic activity. Negative results in tests for mutagenicity in selected tissues from animals treated in vivo provide less weight, partly because they do not exclude the possibility of an effect in tissues other than those examined. Moreover, negative results in short-term tests with genetic end-points cannot be considered to provide evidence that rules out the carcinogenicity of agents that act through other mechanisms (e.g. receptor-mediated effects, cellular toxicity with regenerative cell division, peroxisome proliferation) (Vainio et al., 1992). Factors that may give misleading results in short-term tests have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Montesano et al., 1986; McGregor et al., 1999).

When there is evidence that an agent acts by a specific mechanism that does not involve genotoxicity (e.g. hormonal dysregulation, immune suppression, and formation of calculi and other deposits that cause chronic irritation), that evidence is presented and reviewed critically in the context of rigorous criteria for the operation of that mechanism in carcinogenesis (e.g. Capen et al., 1999).

For biological agents such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, other data relevant to carcinogenicity may include descriptions of the pathology of infection, integration and expression of viruses, and genetic alterations seen in human tumours. Other observations that might comprise cellular and tissue responses to infection, immune response and the presence of tumour markers are also considered.

For physical agents that are forms of radiation, other data relevant to carcinogenicity may include descriptions of damaging effects at the physiological, cellular and molecular level, as for chemical agents, and descriptions of how these effects occur. ‘Physical agents’ may also be considered to comprise foreign bodies, such as surgical implants of various kinds, and poorly soluble fibres, dusts and particles of various sizes, the pathogenic effects of which are a result of their physical presence in tissues or body cavities. Other relevant data for such materials may include characterization of cellular, tissue and physiological reactions to these materials and descriptions of pathological conditions other than neoplasia with which they may be associated.

(c) Other data relevant to mechanisms

A description is provided of any structure-activity relationships that may be relevant to an evaluation of the carcinogenicity of an agent, the toxicological implications of the physical and chemical properties, and any other data relevant to the evaluation that are not included elsewhere.

High-output data, such as those derived from gene expression microarrays, and high-throughput data, such as those that result from testing hundreds of agents for a single end-point, pose a unique problem for the use of mechanistic data in the evaluation of a carcinogenic hazard. In the case of high-output data, there is the possibility to overinterpret changes in individual end-points (e.g. changes in expression in one gene) without considering the consistency of that finding in the broader context of the other end-points (e.g. other genes with linked transcriptional control). High-output data can be used in assessing mechanisms, but all end-points measured in a single experiment need to be considered in the proper context. For high-throughput data, where the number of observations far exceeds the number of end-points measured, their utility for identifying common mechanisms across multiple agents is enhanced. These data can be used to identify mechanisms that not only seem plausible, but also have a consistent pattern of carcinogenic response across entire classes of related compounds.

(d) Susceptibility data

Individuals, populations and life-stages may have greater or lesser susceptibility to an agent, based on toxicokinetics, mechanisms of carcinogenesis and other factors. Examples of host and genetic factors that affect individual susceptibility include sex, genetic polymorphisms of genes involved in the metabolism of the agent under evaluation, differences in metabolic capacity due to life-stage or the presence of disease, differences in DNA repair capacity, competition for or alteration of metabolic capacity by medications or other chemical exposures, pre-existing hormonal imbalance that is exacerbated by a chemical exposure, a suppressed immune system, periods of higher-than-usual tissue growth or regeneration and genetic polymorphisms that lead to differences in behaviour (e.g. addiction). Such data can substantially increase the strength of the evidence from epidemiological data and enhance the linkage of in-vivo and in-vitro laboratory studies to humans.

(e) Data on other adverse effects

Data on acute, subchronic and chronic adverse effects relevant to the cancer evaluation are summarized. Adverse effects that confirm distribution and biological effects at the sites of tumour development, or alterations in physiology that could lead to tumour development, are emphasized. Effects on reproduction, embryonic and fetal survival and development are summarized briefly. The adequacy of epidemiological studies of reproductive outcome and genetic and related effects in humans is judged by the same criteria as those applied to epidemiological studies of cancer, but fewer details are given.

Posted 23 January 2006