Environmental contributions to cancer development are widely accepted, but only a fraction of all pertinent exposures have probably been identified. Traditional toxicological approaches to the problem have largely focused on the effects of individual agents at singular endpoints. As such, they have incompletely addressed both the pro-carcinogenic contributions of environmentally relevant low-dose chemical mixtures and the fact that exposures can influence multiple cancer-associated endpoints over varying timescales. Of these endpoints, dysregulated metabolism is one of the most common and recognizable features of cancer, but its specific roles in exposure-associated cancer development remain poorly understood. Most studies have focused on discrete aspects of cancer metabolism and have incompletely considered both its dynamic integrated nature and the complex controlling influences of substrate availability, external trophic signals and environmental conditions. Emerging high throughput approaches to environmental risk assessment also do not directly address the metabolic causes or consequences of changes in gene expression. As such, there is a compelling need to establish common or complementary frameworks for further exploration that experimentally and conceptually consider the gestalt of cancer metabolism and its causal relationships to both carcinogenesis and the development of other cancer hallmarks. A literature review to identify environmentally relevant exposures unambiguously linked to both cancer development and dysregulated metabolism suggests major gaps in our understanding of exposure-associated carcinogenesis and metabolic reprogramming. Although limited evidence exists to support primary causal roles for metabolism in carcinogenesis, the universality of altered cancer metabolism underscores its fundamental biological importance, and multiple pleiomorphic, even dichotomous, roles for metabolism in promoting, antagonizing or otherwise enabling the development and selection of cancer are suggested.
Lifestyle factors are responsible for a considerable portion of cancer incidence worldwide, but credible estimates from the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggest that the fraction of cancers attributable to toxic environmental exposures is between 7% and 19%. To explore the hypothesis that low-dose exposures to mixtures of chemicals in the environment may be combining to contribute to environmental carcinogenesis, we reviewed 11 hallmark phenotypes of cancer, multiple priority target sites for disruption in each area and prototypical chemical disruptors for all targets, this included dose-response characterizations, evidence of low-dose effects and cross-hallmark effects for all targets and chemicals. In total, 85 examples of chemicals were reviewed for actions on key pathways/mechanisms related to carcinogenesis. Only 15% (13/85) were found to have evidence of a dose-response threshold, whereas 59% (50/85) exerted low-dose effects. No dose-response information was found for the remaining 26% (22/85). Our analysis suggests that the cumulative effects of individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies. Additional basic research on carcinogenesis and research focused on low-dose effects of chemical mixtures needs to be rigorously pursued before the merits of this hypothesis can be further advanced. However, the structure of the World Health Organization International Programme on Chemical Safety 'Mode of Action' framework should be revisited as it has inherent weaknesses that are not fully aligned with our current understanding of cancer biology.