Lots of cancer research revolves around studying the individual. Individual patients, individual cancer cells, and individual genes that drive cancer formation and evolution: all of these are important to advancing our understanding of this disease. Studying large groups of people is also essential in the war against cancer. Certain groups of people are more at risk for cancer than others. Additionally, cancers can cluster in geographic areas. The study of these larger groups, termed Population Science, is especially important for designing effective preventative methods and for determining who needs to be screened for cancer. Risk factors for populations are complex and can take many forms. We know that drug and alcohol use can increase your risk for certain types of cancer. Certain racial and ethnic minorities are more at risk for certain cancer types and often have worse outcomes. These health disparities are due to both biological and socioeconomic factors. We also know that cancer trends in certain distantly related populations of people. Additionally, lifestyle factors ranging from obesity to shift work can increase your chances of being diagnosed with cancer. All of these factors and more are examined by LCRC scientists on a population and individual level. These studies help Louisiana to better understand cancer within the state and, ultimately, ways to help control and treat it. Of special focus at the LCRC are the interrelated topics of Epigenetics and Environmental Sciences.
Epigenetics is an additional layer of gene regulations. If your genes are the words on a page that tell your cells what to do, epigenetics are the punctuation and formatting that add or subtract emphasis and meaning. Epigenetic changes can dial different genes up or down, profoundly impacting the behavior of cells. In general, when cells become cancerous a lot of genes get dialed to inappropriate levels, often due to the incorrect behavior of proteins called histone deacetylases. These proteins act on the histones, the scaffolds that DNA rests on and regulates its behavior. Often, drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors can be used as part of chemotherapy to help fight cancer. Cancer can also cause widespread demethylation, which is where chemicals called methyl groups that act like molecular off switches for genes get removed, dialing the gene’s activity up. Researchers at the LCRC study how environment can impact these epigenetic changes and predispose populations to different cancers.
People in many parts of Louisiana can have a higher than average exposure to heavy metals in their environments. This can happen through activities like smoking or through occupational or living exposures to heavy metals. Researchers at the LCRC are looking at what populations are exposed to these metals and what cancers they are predisposed to. Additionally, our researchers are examining the exact ways that heavy metals can lead to genetic and epigenetic changes in cells. Researchers at the LCRC are also interested in how environmental factors like light at night can contribute to cancer development, especially though the lens of its effect on the genome. Our researchers are especially concerned with examining the health disparities that can be seen in these population and epigenetics-focused studies of the impact of the environment on Louisianans. These efforts are actively contributing to our understanding of how we can better control cancer in our state and in the entire Gulf region.