What are the major determinants of women's breast cancer risk? Rare mutations such as those in the BRCA1/2 genes, polygenic scores of common alleles identified by genome-wide association studies, or nongenetic factors?
The population-based Nordic Twin Study of Cancer, with 3,933 breast cancer cases among 21,054 monozygotic (MZ) and 30,939 dizygotic (DZ) female twin pairs, provides three key clues to this question: (i) the average lifetime risk, approximately 8%, does not differ by twin zygosity; (ii) the mean time interval between diagnoses when both twins develop disease (i.e., disease concordance) also does not differ by zygosity; but, (iii) conditioning on one twin having developed disease, the incidence rate in the co-twin is approximately 1% per year if the pair is MZ and 0.5% per year if DZ.
Assuming that nongenetic risk factors are shared similarly between twins regardless of zygosity, we can draw two conclusions from (i) to (iii).
First, (i) and (iii) imply that the chief determinant of risk is in the germline DNA, because the conditional incidence rate is several-fold higher than the average risk (8% lifetime) in MZ twins but only half as much in DZ twins. Second, the seeming inconsistency between the two-fold conditional incidence rate (iii) and the equality of the mean inter-twin disease intervals in disease concordance (ii) can be resolved if the risk factors in the germline DNA are rare variants, not common variants.
This paper details simple deductive reasoning for these conclusions and draws a critical inference regarding breast cancer etiology.