Trends in Cancer Research

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The links between diet and cancer strengthen yearly, but it can be difficult to conceptualize what are hot research subtopics. One method is to compare raw publication counts per year as they are listed in the PubMed database. To do this, I used Google Spreadsheets to query each of the terms in the table below. The terms were adapted from AICR/World Cancer Research Fund’s document “Summary: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective” (p. 8-9). The resulting counts reflect matches containing the term and “cancer” in titles or abstracts of listings in PubMed.

The cells utilize the same color coding system as AICR/WCRF: the coloring reflects the strongest confidence for an association between the term and a decreased or increased risk for at least one cancer type. Terms with a yellow background were not in the document list and added by me.

Picture 2The spreadsheet auto-updates daily, and values may slightly change if new publications/journals are indexed. As the year progresses, the column that calculates the 2013 to 2012 ratio will become more accurate. It is sorted by the percentage of papers published in 2012 compared to 2011 to show which areas changed the most. I’ve also included a column with average publication count change per year over the last 5 years, which may better reflect recent trends.

Several caveats: publication count may not accurately reflect trends if relevant papers are not included under the search term, or the way they are classified changes over time. In addition, this method does not consider different publication types (trials, reviews, etc- all types are included in the counts) nor include objective measures of the importance of the work. However, the terms most confidently associated with cancer tend to have higher publication counts, suggesting that in general it reflects research trends.

If you have any search term requests, post them in the comments and I can add them.

Colby Vorland is a food and nutritional science graduate student. He blogs about various research topics in nutrition at and on Twitter @nutsci.


    Author: Colby
    Thanks to Colby Vorland for Guest Blogging.

    Mya R. Nelson is at American Institute for Cancer Research, where she writes about the research in the field.

    5 thoughts on “Trends in Cancer Research”

    1. Hi Colby,
      Great job with this spread sheet! I’m wondering how you assigned risk levels to the different factors. Are these your interpretations of the current state of research? Or did these come from AICR/WCR report from which you got the specific terms? I’m specifically interested in dietary sugar and what the most recent trends in research suggest about it’s correlation with cancer risk.

    2. Hello, I just wanted to say thanks for providing such an impressive spreadsheet on cancer research! I think some of the most promising research right now is looking into the underlying mutations that could lead to certain diseases like pancreatic cancer. The deadliest cancers, like pancreatic, need to be identified as early as possible and I think this will help considerably.

    3. Could you please clarify the difference between milk and dietary calcium. Do these not both mean dairy foods?
      Thank you.

      1. Thank you for your question. Although Americans do get much of their dietary calcium from dairy foods, other foods also contain calcium. Some vegetables and beans contain small to moderate amounts of calcium and these can add up to significant amounts. There are also many calcium fortified foods which would be considered dietary calcium as well.

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