BACKGROUND: Epidemiologic studies of the families of patients with ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a recessive genetic neurologic disorder caused by mutation of the ATM gene, suggest that heterozygous carriers of an ATM mutation are at increased risk of cancer. A population-based study of cancer incidence in A-T families with unbiased selection and tracing of relatives would confirm this hypothesis. METHODS: We conducted a study in the Nordic countries of 1218 blood relatives of 56 A-T patients from 50 families. The relatives were identified from population registries, and the occurrence of cancer was determined from cancer registry files in each country and compared with national incidence rates. All statistical tests were two-sided. RESULTS: Among the 56 patients with A-T, we observed six cases of cancer (four leukemias and two non-Hodgkin's lymphomas) compared with 0.16 expected, yielding a standardized incidence ratio (SIR) of 37 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 13 to 80). Among the 1218 relatives, 150 cancers were recorded, with 126 expected (SIR = 1.19; 95% CI = 1.01 to 1.40). Invasive breast cancer occurred in 21 female relatives of A-T patients (SIR = 1.54; 95% CI = 0.95 to 2.36), including five of the 50 mothers (all of whom are obligate ATM mutation carriers) (SIR = 7.1; 95% CI = 2.3 to 17). Relatives who were less likely to be carriers of a mutant ATM allele had no increase or only a modest, statistically nonsignificant increase in the risk of breast cancer. There was no evidence of increased risk for cancer at any other site. CONCLUSIONS: We confirmed the previously recognized high risk of lymphoma and leukemia in A-T patients. Our data are also consistent with an increased risk of breast cancer among blood relatives of A-T patients. The epidemiologic findings suggest, however, that, even if ATM mutations are responsible for some breast cancer cases, ATM is a relatively weak genetic risk factor for the disease.
Comment In: J Natl Cancer Inst. 2001 Jan 17;93(2):84-511208872