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New Degree Focuses on Cancer, Environment

September 12, 2007

Madeline Vann

Graduate students seeking to understand the complexity of cancer from the molecular level to the community level have a new degree option at Tulane. The Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is offering a track in environmental oncology beginning this fall.


Charles Miller, associate professor of environmental health sciences, says graduate students in a new program will explore links between environmental exposures and cancer. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

"What makes this program unique is that it's a natural continuum from the basic to applied sciences," says Maureen Lichtveld, chair of environmental health sciences. "A PhD from this program means the student is not only well-versed in the lab side and in population studies, but will be able to communicate findings into real-world action."

The track is a partnership with the Tulane Cancer Center and the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium.

Students will explore the genetic impact of environmental exposures and their possible contribution to cancer.

"Any aspect of environmentally induced cancer is fair game, from the population level to the molecular level, from exposure to environmental factors like tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust or natural chemicals in foods," says Charles Miller, associate professor of environmental health sciences, whose research focuses on how exposure to combustion by-products (smoke) and other chemicals affect a receptor protein in cells that is critical to cancer development.

Miller gives the example of nasal cancer in people in the woodworking industry. Miller explains that while nasal cancer is very rare, people in the furniture trade have a five- to six-fold increase in risk. A detailed analysis could provide information about the kinds of woods or processes at fault, which could ultimately lead to better safety controls and regulations, he adds.

Despite the potentially controversial nature of the research, Miller believes that industries also can benefit from better science because they will be able to protect themselves against misrepresentations of the effects of their products.

Lichtveld argues that better science can lead to better regulations for individual health as well. For example, she says, New Orleans residents battling mold in the months after Hurricane Katrina quickly learned that there are no standards of dangerous levels of mold in a house, due to a lack of evidence-based science to guide regulations.

Lichtveld is excited to add new faculty member Gabriele Sabbioni to the team. Sabbioni's research focuses on finding biomarkers that can pinpoint whether or not a person has been exposed to a specific substance.

"He is a tremendously experienced basic science researcher who has studied environmental carcinogens at the molecular and cellular level, but he also has experience in translating his laboratory findings into population studies," Lichtveld says.

The environmental oncology program also offers an MD/PhD track for medical students who are interested in pursuing more research training.

"Their education will truly be from bench to bedside," says Lichtveld.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000