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MU Exploring Common Metal's Cancer-Causing Potential

Scientist Jane McElroy studying cadmium's health effects with grant from American Cancer Society

The silver-white metal cadmium is ubiquitous – found everywhere from favorite foods to the majority of batteries that power household gadgets. Cadmium is also a probable carcinogen, causing health agencies to increasingly call for better public awareness and more conclusive research on the common metal.

Cadmium's potential for causing endometrial cancer is the subject of a new study led by MU School of Medicine researcher Jane McElroy, PhD. The assistant professor of family and community medicine was recently awarded a $708,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to study cadmium with a team of scientists at MU's Research Reactor, College of Veterinary Medicine and chemistry department.

"All people will have some cadmium in their system. We're questioning the varying amounts people have and looking to see if this could be associated with cancer," McElroy said. "The long view is that these incremental understandings at the molecular and cellular level about any relationship between endometrial cancer and cadmium allows us insight into what's going on in the population."

In 2003, McElroy led a study that concluded that women with higher levels of cadmium in their bodies were at higher risk for developing breast cancer as compared with women with lower levels. She hypothesizes that the same will hold true for endometrial cancer, one of the most prevalent types of gynecological cancer, which affects one in 40 women in the U.S.

McElroy's new four-year study uses unique information-gathering techniques for her field of research. Before receiving the American Cancer Society's support, her team conducted a pilot study to identify white and African-American women's form of a metal-binding protein. The frequency of the different forms of this protein, which could affect their cancer risk, had never been reported for those populations. The new grant will allow McElroy to continue her research using similar individual-level data from the Missouri Cancer Registry and other resources.

MU researchers will gather endometrial cancer risk factor data and biospecimens from 750 women who have been diagnosed with endometrial cancer and who appear on cancer registries in Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa. A group of 750 women who have not been diagnosed with endometrial cancer will serve as the study's control.

Through analysis of participants' urine and saliva samples, researchers will determine how much cadmium the women have been exposed to in their lifetime. In addition, they will extract a DNA sample and look at the women's genotypes to determine whether their risk of developing endometrial cancer is higher for women with one of the forms of the metal-binding protein metallothionein compared to another form.

Having an understanding of the mechanisms that drive endometrial cancer could lead to the development of pharmaceuticals or other interventions to prevent and treat the disease, McElroy said.

Study results could lead to changes in consumer choices and personal behavior. Eighty percent of human-produced cadmium in the environment is a byproduct of nickel-cadmium batteries. Production and disposal of the batteries can cause cadmium to enter the air, soil and food supplies. Foods such as shellfish, kidney and liver are known to have the highest concentration of cadmium, and smoking is known to double a person's cadmium exposure.

MU Health Magazine


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