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Looking to the Past for Clues to Prevent Cancer

Read time: 2 minutes

Nicola Camp, PhD
Nicola Camp, PhD

Cancer research and care often involve looking to the new—the latest surgical technology, a more effective drug not available even a few months ago, or next-generation DNA sequencing to assess specific tumor characteristics. Yet some of the most useful insights in cancer come from looking to the past.

An extraordinary confluence of resources and ingenuity put Utah on the map as a powerhouse in genetics. What’s the secret? A database that combines information from detailed family trees going back generations, mapped to other information, like demographics, medical histories, environmental measures, and more.

The result is the Utah Population Database, or UPDB. Designed by Utah researchers in the 1970s, its initial goal was to better understand familial risk of common cancers. Today, with richer information, it provides a sophisticated view of cancer in a population to help further understand why some cancers seem to haunt families generation after generation.

Thanks to the UPDB, families across the world have been able to get the critical answers they need to take control of their genetic history of cancer. The discoveries have been profound, including new cancer screening guidelines in the United States and the discovery of genes responsible for melanoma, colon cancer, breast and ovarian cancer, multiple myeloma, and more.

One of the most notable discoveries fueled by the UPDB is the identification of BRCA1 and BRCA2, genes responsible for breast and ovarian cancer. “Worldwide, about 250,000 people get tested for BRCA1 and 2 each year. That is an extraordinary measure of impact on human health,” says Nicola Camp, PhD, a cancer genetic epidemiologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Camp was named director of the UPDB in 2021.

These discoveries have powerful implications. Identifying individuals and families with inherited predisposition to cancer means those individuals can take action to reduce risk through increased screening and preventative behaviors. By using the UPDB to look at generations in the past, we can improve health and save lives—now and for generations into the future

Cancer touches all of us.