BACKGROUND: Various risk factors have been associated with epithelial ovarian cancer risk in observational epidemiological studies. However, the causal nature of the risk factors reported, and thus their suitability as effective intervention targets, is unclear given the susceptibility of conventional observational designs to residual confounding and reverse causation. Mendelian randomization (MR) uses genetic variants as proxies for risk factors to strengthen causal inference in observational studies. We used MR to evaluate the association of 12 previously reported risk factors (reproductive, anthropometric, clinical, lifestyle, and molecular factors) with risk of invasive epithelial ovarian cancer, invasive epithelial ovarian cancer histotypes, and low malignant potential tumours.
METHODS AND FINDINGS: Genetic instruments to proxy 12 risk factors were constructed by identifying single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that were robustly (P < 5 × 10-8) and independently associated with each respective risk factor in previously reported genome-wide association studies. These risk factors included genetic liability to 3 factors (endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, type 2 diabetes) scaled to reflect a 50% higher odds liability to disease. We obtained summary statistics for the association of these SNPs with risk of overall and histotype-specific invasive epithelial ovarian cancer (22,406 cases; 40,941 controls) and low malignant potential tumours (3,103 cases; 40,941 controls) from the Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium (OCAC). The OCAC dataset comprises 63 genotyping project/case-control sets with participants of European ancestry recruited from 14 countries (US, Australia, Belarus, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Canada, Poland, UK, Spain, Netherlands, and Sweden). SNPs were combined into multi-allelic inverse-variance-weighted fixed or random effects models to generate effect estimates and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Three complementary sensitivity analyses were performed to examine violations of MR assumptions: MR-Egger regression and weighted median and mode estimators. A Bonferroni-corrected P value threshold was used to establish strong evidence (P < 0.0042) and suggestive evidence (0.0042 < P < 0.05) for associations. In MR analyses, there was strong or suggestive evidence that 2 of the 12 risk factors were associated with invasive epithelial ovarian cancer and 8 of the 12 were associated with 1 or more invasive epithelial ovarian cancer histotypes. There was strong evidence that genetic liability to endometriosis was associated with an increased risk of invasive epithelial ovarian cancer (odds ratio [OR] per 50% higher odds liability: 1.10, 95% CI 1.06-1.15; P = 6.94 × 10-7) and suggestive evidence that lifetime smoking exposure was associated with an increased risk of invasive epithelial ovarian cancer (OR per unit increase in smoking score: 1.36, 95% CI 1.04-1.78; P = 0.02). In analyses examining histotypes and low malignant potential tumours, the strongest associations found were between height and clear cell carcinoma (OR per SD increase: 1.36, 95% CI 1.15-1.61; P = 0.0003); age at natural menopause and endometrioid carcinoma (OR per year later onset: 1.09, 95% CI 1.02-1.16; P = 0.007); and genetic liability to polycystic ovary syndrome and endometrioid carcinoma (OR per 50% higher odds liability: 0.89, 95% CI 0.82-0.96; P = 0.002). There was little evidence for an association of genetic liability to type 2 diabetes, parity, or circulating levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D and sex hormone binding globulin with ovarian cancer or its subtypes. The primary limitations of this analysis include the modest statistical power for analyses of risk factors in relation to some less common ovarian cancer histotypes (low grade serous, mucinous, and clear cell carcinomas), the inability to directly examine the association of some ovarian cancer risk factors that did not have robust genetic variants available to serve as proxies (e.g., oral contraceptive use, hormone replacement therapy), and the assumption of linear relationships between risk factors and ovarian cancer risk.
CONCLUSIONS: Our comprehensive examination of possible aetiological drivers of ovarian carcinogenesis using germline genetic variants to proxy risk factors supports a role for few of these factors in invasive epithelial ovarian cancer overall and suggests distinct aetiologies across histotypes. The identification of novel risk factors remains an important priority for the prevention of epithelial ovarian cancer.