Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine will study the link between exposure to battlefield chemicals and prostate cancer (PC) in U.S. veterans with a $1 million Challenge Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
The goal is to better understand specific mutations or changes in expression that might have occurred as a result of exposure to toxic materials on the battlefield.
Researchers will study patients at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MEDVAMC) and Harris Health’s Ben Taub Hospital, two Houston-based healthcare facilities serving a large number of veterans with PC.
Jeffrey Jones, MD, chief of urology at MEDVAMC and the study’s lead investigator, will lead a team that selects patients for the project, collects blood and tissue samples from veterans with PC, and conducts translational and clinical studies. The team hopes to develop new biotechnologies for diagnosing and treating PC patients. It also will investigate the genomics, metabolomics, and epigenomics of unique tumor specimens from these patients.
While genomics deals with genetic makeup, epigenomics examines which genes are turned on or off. Metabolomics analyzes how tumor cells metabolize nutrients to obtain energy.
The team will evaluate splice variants in mRNA (RNA molecules that generate proteins) of the androgen receptor, which might be more frequent in certain sub-groups and lead to more aggressive forms of PC.
One way to accomplish these objectives is to define metabolic and epigenetic signatures of the disease in racially diverse population groups to identify differences in their DNA and cellular function.
“Throughout their careers in the military, many veterans came into contact with battlefield chemicals or substances at some point, with chemicals such as Agent Orange being used extensively in Vietnam as an herbicide. However, the long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals on human health is not completely understood, particularly as it relates to cancer,” Jones said in a press release.
“Agent Orange could be an environmental factor that does not always produce a mutation, but it might be changing the way the cell expresses itself. Understanding this change could be equally as important as the cancer genome itself,” Jones continued.
According to the American Cancer Society, Agent Orange is a type of chemical mixture that is used as a defoliant, a product that causes the leaves to fall off plants. It was mostly used by U.S. armed forces in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971, during the Vietnam War, to remove forest cover, destroy crops and clear vegetation from the perimeters of U.S. bases.
About three million Americans served during the Vietnam War and some were exposed to this agent. Years later, questions remain unanswered regarding the lasting health effects of this exposure but it has been linked to increases in cancer risk.
“Participation in and execution of this study will help us identify targets and develop treatments for prostate cancer in the future,” Jones said. “There are many locations where people are living, like Houston, which expose them to petrochemicals and other environmental hazards and pollutants. Thus, the results of this study could have more far-reaching implications than just for herbicides.”
Jones is chief of urology service at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). He served in the military for the past 28 years, either on active duty or in the reserves.