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Since the inception of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in the early 1970s, the IARC Monographs Programme has evaluated more than 1000 agents with respect to carcinogenic hazard; of these, up to and including Volume 119 of the IARC Monographs, 120 agents met the criteria for classification as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Volume 100 of the IARC Monographs provided a review and update of Group 1 carcinogens. These agents were divided into six broad categories: (I) pharmaceuticals; (II) biological agents; (III) arsenic, metals, fibers, and dusts; (IV) radiation; (V) personal habits and indoor combustions; and (VI) chemical agents and related occupations. Data on biological mechanisms of action (MOA) were extracted from the Monographs to assemble a database on the basis of ten key characteristics attributed to human carcinogens. After some grouping of similar agents, the characteristic profiles were examined for 86 Group 1 agents for which mechanistic information was available in the IARC Monographs up to and including Volume 106, based upon data derived from human in vivo, human in vitro, animal in vivo, and animal in vitro studies. The most prevalent key characteristic was "is genotoxic", followed by "alters cell proliferation, cell death, or nutrient supply" and "induces oxidative stress". Most agents exhibited several of the ten key characteristics, with an average of four characteristics per agent, a finding consistent with the notion that cancer development in humans involves multiple pathways. Information on the key characteristics was often available from multiple sources, with many agents demonstrating concordance between human and animal sources, particularly with respect to genotoxicity. Although a detailed comparison of the characteristics of different types of agents was not attempted here, the overall characteristic profiles for pharmaceutical agents and for chemical agents and related occupations appeared similar. Further in-depth analyses of this rich database of characteristics of human carcinogens are expected to provide additional insights into the MOA of human cancer development.

Original publication




Journal article


J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev

Publication Date



1 - 20


carcinogenesis, key characteristics of carcinogens, mechanisms of action, sources of information, toxicological endpoints