Mechanisms research

Innovative method to review research on mechanisms by which lifestyle factors cause cancer

Globally, there is no standardised way to review the vast amount of research on the mechanisms by which lifestyle factors can cause cancer. Work is now under way, however, to develop and test a new methodology for conducting systematic reviews of mechanistic studies related to diet, nutrition, physical activity and the development and progression of different cancers.

This process began in 2012, when World Cancer Research Fund International convened a special group – the Mechanisms Protocol Development Group – to begin developing the methodology. This group developed some initial guidance on how to systematically review evidence on mechanisms and cancer. The aim was to ensure that we had a methodology to review mechanistic research that was as robust as the protocols used to carry out the systematic literature reviews (SLRs) of the epidemiological studies analysed for our Continuous Update Project reports.

In September 2012,  we awarded a grant to a team at the University of Bristol to further develop the guidance into a template protocol and test the feasibility of the approach. Developed by Dr Sarah Lewis and Professor Richard Martin at the University of Bristol, the groundbreaking new method of assessing mechanistic studies could become the global mainstream approach to assessing such research. The comprehensive method is currently being tested by two teams from Maastricht University and the German Cancer Research Center, and a full validation study is expected to take place next year.

Dr Sarah Lewis and Professor Martin Wiseman (World Cancer Research Fund International) spoke about this work at the joint WCRF/IASO conference on Obesity, Physical activity and Cancer in April 2013. Professor Richard Martin gave a presentation on it at the UICC World Cancer Congress in December 2014; and Professor Wiseman discussed the use of systematic reviews of animal and human mechanistic studies at the 20th International Congress of Nutrition in September 2013, and also discussed project at the Federation of European Nutrition Societies (FENS) conference in October 2015. 

The Mechanisms Protocol Development Group members will continue to have an independent advisory role in this process, together with other expert advisers for this work.

Mechanisms Protocol Development Group (MPDG)


Stephen D Hursting, Chair
, University of Texas, 
Austin, TX, US

Steven K Clinton, 
The Ohio State University 
Columbus, OH, US

Andrew J Dannenberg,
 Weill Cornell Medical College
, New York, NY, US

Associate members

Nikki A Ford, University of Texas, 
Austin, TX, US

Johanna W Lampe, 
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 
Seattle, WA, US

Henry J Thompson, 
Colorado State University, 
Colorado, CO, US