Cancer research is drawing on the human genome project to develop new molecular-targeted treatments. This is an exciting but insufficient response to the growing, global burden of cancer, particularly as the projected increase in new cases in the coming decades is increasingly falling on developing countries. The world is not able to treat its way out of the cancer problem. However, the mechanistic insights from basic science can be harnessed to better understand cancer causes and prevention, thus underpinning a complementary public health approach to cancer control. This manuscript focuses on how new knowledge about the molecular and cellular basis of cancer, and the associated high-throughput laboratory technologies for studying those pathways, can be applied to population-based epidemiological studies, particularly in the context of large prospective cohorts with associated biobanks to provide an evidence base for cancer prevention. This integrated approach should allow a more rapid and informed translation of the research into educational and policy interventions aimed at risk reduction across a population.