The link between exposure to battlefield chemicals and prostate cancer in veterans is not well understood, but researchers at Baylor College of Medicine are hoping to change that. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has granted Baylor a $1 million Challenge Award to study this link in patients at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Harris Health’s Ben Taub Hospital, both of which serve a large number of veterans and men with prostate cancer, who either have or have not been exposed to battlefield chemicals.
“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,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jones, professor of urology and space medicine at Baylor, chief of urology service at the VA and principal investigator of the project.
Goals of the collaborative project include the creation of defined groups of prostate cancer patients for research in population science, the collection of blood and tissue samples from VA prostate cancer patients for translational or clinical trial research purposes, the development of new biotechnologies for the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of VA prostate cancer patients, and the genomic, metabolomic and epigenomic investigation of unique tumor specimens from VA prostate cancer patients to better understand specific mutations or changes in expression that might have occurred as a result of exposure to toxic materials on the battlefield. The study also will evaluate splice variants in mRNA of the androgen receptor, which may be more common in certain ethnic groups and lead to more aggressive forms of prostate cancer.
“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,” said Jones, who has served in the military for the past 28 years, either on active duty or in the reserves, as he is currently at the Naval Air Station in Fort Worth, Texas. “This project will build on Baylor’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s strengths in cancer research, as well as population science and health disparities research and will employ unique approaches to meet our study goals.”
The research team will accomplish these objectives by defining metabolic and epigenetic signatures of the disease in racially diverse and variably exposed groups to identify differences in their DNA and cellular function.
“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.”
Other key contributors to this project include Drs. Michael Ittmann, Nick Mitsiades, Arun Sreekumar, Nancy Weigel, Cheryl Walker, Ed Yen, Jennifer Taylor, Rao Mandalapu and colleagues, all with Baylor, plus Drs. Nora Navone and Curtis Pettaway at MD Anderson Cancer Center. The study team was supported by Drs. Kent Osborne and Martha Mims at the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.