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Health Library : Cancer Center

 

Genetics and Cancer - Multifactorial Inheritance

What is multifactorial inheritance?

Multifactorial inheritance means that many factors (multifactorial) are involved in causing a health problem. The factors are usually both genetic and environmental, where a combination of genes from both parents, in addition to unknown environmental factors, produce the trait or condition. Multifactorial traits do recur in families, because they are partly caused by genes and shared environmental factors. The chance of a multifactorial trait or condition happening to you depends on how closely the family member with the trait is related to you. For example, the risk is higher if your parent or sibling has the trait or disease than if your first cousin has the trait or disease. Family members share a certain percentage of genes in common, depending on their relationship. For example:

Degrees of RelationshipPercentage of Genes in CommonExample
First-degree relative50 percentparents, children, siblings
Second-degree relative25 percentaunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents
Third-degree relative12.5 percentfirst cousins

An example of a multifactorial trait is height. Some people may be exceptionally short or exceptionally tall, often due to an alteration (mutation) in a single gene that has a major effect on height. However, most of the time, a child's height is similar to, or somewhere  between, the parents' height. Some cancers cluster in families as the result of a combination of genetic and shared environmental factors (multifactorial influences). In such cases, generally speaking, the closer in relation a family member with cancer is to you (i.e., the more genes you share), the higher your chance to also develop cancer. In other words, it is more significant for your personal health if one of your parents or siblings develops cancer (or other disease) than if your second cousin develops the disease.

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