Role and limitations of epidemiology in establishing a causal association

Eduardo L. Franco, Pelayo Correa, Regina M. Santella, Xifeng Wu, Steven N. Goodman, Gloria M. Petersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Cancer risk assessment is one of the most visible and controversial endeavors of epidemiology. Epidemiologic approaches are among the most influential of all disciplines that inform policy decisions to reduce cancer risk. The adoption of epidemiologic reasoning to define causal criteria beyond the realm of mechanistic concepts of cause-effect relationships in disease etiology has placed greater reliance on controlled observations of cancer risk as a function of putative exposures in populations. The advent of molecular epidemiology further expanded the field to allow more accurate exposure assessment, improved understanding of intermediate endpoints, and enhanced risk prediction by incorporating the knowledge on genetic susceptibility. We examine herein the role and limitations of epidemiology as a discipline concerned with the identification of carcinogens in the physical, chemical, and biological environment. We reviewed two examples of the application of epidemiologic approaches to aid in the discovery of the causative factors of two very important malignant diseases worldwide, stomach and cervical cancers. Both examples serve as paradigms of successful cooperation between epidemiologists and laboratory scientists in the pursuit of the understanding of cancer etiology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)413-426
Number of pages14
JournalSeminars in Cancer Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2004


  • Carcinogenicity
  • Causal criteria
  • Epidemiology
  • Infections
  • Risk assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research


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