Public Health Researchers Chosen for International Cancer Task Force

UAMS College of Public Health researchers Igor Koturbash, M.D., Ph.D., and Isabelle Racine Miousse, Ph.D., have been invited to participate in an international cancer investigation.

Aug. 16, 2013 | Igor Koturbash, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, has been invited to be part of a newly formed international initiative that will investigate the role of commonly encountered chemicals in cancer causation as well as explore new cancer-fighting therapies.

Isabelle Racine Miousse, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in Koturbash’s lab, will join him in this effort.

The Canada-based initiative, the Halifax Project, has pulled together more than 350 cancer researchers from 31 countries who will comprise two task forces. Koturbash will serve on the task force that will explore the mechanisms of cancer and assess cancer risks associated with everyday exposures to mixtures of chemicals such as those found in household cleaners, food additives, air pollution and personal care products.

The other task force will study broad-spectrum approaches to cancer treatment and prevention that will include the utilization of herbs and other plants known to have cancer-fighting properties. The aim is to develop therapies without toxicity or drug-resistance limitations.

Current regulatory policies on cancer-causing agents, Koturbash explained, are focused on single chemicals that are genotoxic – those that may cause DNA damage. Relatively unexplored are the cancer risks associated with chemicals that are not genotoxic. Yet, singly or in combination with others, and sometimes at low levels of exposure, these compounds are believed to play a key role in cancer initiation and progression.

Koturbash and Racine Miousse participated in the first convening of the environmental chemicals task force last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first task ahead for them and fellow researchers is “studying the possibility that low-dose exposures to mixtures of environmental chemicals may be contributing to the high rates of cancer incidence that society is currently facing,” he said. “The big idea is to improve risk assessment for mixtures of chemicals that can impact human health.”

These studies will be published in a special issue of Carcinogenesis, a prestigious multi-disciplinary journal that brings together aspects of research that could ultimately lead to the prevention of cancer, in early 2014.

“Based on that, tasks will be identified to do both epidemiological studies and basic lab research,” Koturbash said. “Currently no battery of tests to predict risks associated with non-genotoxic compounds exist. We are working on the new approaches that will allow the testing of non-genotoxic chemicals, with the long-term goal being to develop strategies to assess the risks from exposures to mixtures of chemicals.”

Koturbash sees his role with the Halifax Project “as an exciting opportunity” to work with other scientists in the same field and one that fits well with his current research at UAMS, which focuses on the epigenetic mechanisms of cancer development – those that cause alterations in a cell’s gene function without altering its DNA sequence – and development of novel approaches for toxicity and cancer risk assessment.

“The beauty of epigenetics is that you can fix epigenetic changes, but genetic changes are not reversible,” Koturbash said. “Knowing what epigenetic changes can result in cancer development can be used for risk assessment and prevention, to keep harmful substances out of the marketplace.”

The Halifax Project is under the auspices of Getting to Know Cancer Cooperative Ltd., a nonprofit organization based in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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