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Assessing the role of cortisol in cancer: a wide-ranged Mendelian randomisation study.

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Lee, Wei-Hsuan 
Kar, Siddhartha 


BACKGROUND: Cortisol's immunosuppressive, obesogenic, and hyperglycaemic effects suggest that it may play a role in cancer development. However, whether cortisol increases cancer risk is not known. We investigated the potential causal association between plasma cortisol and risk of overall and common site-specific cancers using Mendelian randomisation. METHODS: Three genetic variants associated with morning plasma cortisol levels at the genome-wide significance level (P < 5 × 10-8) in the Cortisol Network consortium were used as genetic instruments. Summary-level genome-wide association study data for the cancer outcomes were obtained from large-scale cancer consortia, the UK Biobank, and the FinnGen consortium. Two-sample Mendelian randomisation analyses were performed using the fixed-effects inverse-variance weighted method. Estimates across data sources were combined using meta-analysis. RESULTS: A standard deviation increase in genetically predicted plasma cortisol was associated with increased risk of endometrial cancer (odds ratio 1.50, 95% confidence interval 1.13-1.99; P = 0.005). There was no significant association between genetically predicted plasma cortisol and risk of other common site-specific cancers, including breast, ovarian, prostate, colorectal, lung, or malignant skin cancer, or overall cancer. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that elevated plasma cortisol levels may increase the risk of endometrial cancer but not other cancers. The mechanism by which this occurs remains to be investigated.



Biological Specimen Banks, Genome-Wide Association Study, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Mendelian Randomization Analysis, Neoplasms, Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide, United Kingdom

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Br J Cancer

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC


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Wellcome Trust (204623/Z/16/Z)
Medical Research Council (MR/L003120/1)
British Heart Foundation (None)
British Heart Foundation (RG/18/13/33946)
Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00002/7)
National Institute for Health and Care Research (IS-BRC-1215-20014)