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  December 10, 2001

Researchers to Explore Connections
Between Diet and Cancer Risk

The UConn Health Center has won a six-month, $170,000 planning grant from the National Cancer Institute to map out a strategy for determining how certain nutrients affect cancer.

The strategy will be determined by a team of scientists from the Health Center, the University's molecular and cell biology department at Storrs, and Yale University.

"The grant gives us six months to develop a detailed plan and to identify the resources we need to understand how nutrients influence cancer development," says Daniel Rosenberg of the Center for Molecular Medicine at the Health Center, the principal investigator for the grant.

The plan will be submitted next year with a request for funds to do the work mapped out by the group. "That would mean establishing a large center devoted to research in this area, complete with clinical trials to quickly translate our findings to humans," Rosenberg adds.

Recent research has documented a definite link between diet and cancer risk, but there have been many inconsistencies.

"While beta-carotene has been touted as a protective factor for some cancers, a recent study on smokers showed that it may actually increase their cancer risk," says Rosenberg. "We want to determine why a nutrient might prevent cancer in one situation yet trigger it in another.

"It's clear that oxidants (chemicals that cause DNA in cells to react with neighboring molecules) put the cells at risk for cancerous changes, but the cellular effects of oxidants and antioxidants is complex. We are going to develop a plan that uses nutrients to shift the oxidant balance and then determine how these changes relate to changes in tumor development," he says.

The focus will be on breast and colon cancer, because these are the team's research strengths. Several Health Center researchers already have animal tumor models for breast and colon cancer, so they can easily obtain the cells necessary for the research. "By monitoring cellular oxidant stress throughout the course of cancer therapy and changes in lifestyle, this program will link basic cancer research in animal models to human medical care," says Rosenberg.

The planning grant was one of five funded by the National Cancer Institute from more than 30 applications. It will be used to bring together scientists from different universities and various fields to focus on the problem. The UConn-Yale team includes cancer researchers, cancer epidemiologists, statisticians and nutritional biochemists.

Co-investigators are Andrew Arnold; Kevin Claffey; Timothy Hla; Martin Kulldorff; and Richard Stevens; Charles Giardina, an assistant professor of molecular & cell biology; and Yale University scientists Brenda Cartmel; and Susan Mayne.

Kristina Goodnough