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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

Columbia’s Cancer Prevention and Treatment Initiatives

Faculty at the Mailman School of Public Health are using a variety of perspectives to study cancers of the breast, cervix, and colon, as well as cancer screening and support options.

Breast Cancer Research Center: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Medical Center is one of six new sites launched by the National Institutes of Health for its Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program (BCERP). This latest phase of the NIH program focuses on prevention and adds to the growing knowledge of environmental and genetic factors that may influence breast cancer risk across the lifespan. The new site is led by Dr. Mary Beth Terry, professor of epidemiology, and Dr. Rachel Miller, professor of medicine (pediatrics) and environmental health sciences. Dr. Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) cohort also plays a key role in advancing the research at the new program.

A study of newborns by Dr. Frederica Perera, who is also professor of environmental health sciences, uncovered genetic changes from air pollution known to stack the deck for cancer.

Using international family-based cohorts, Dr. Mary Beth Terry, professor of epidemiology, is examining ways to improve existing models for cancer risk, based on using information on women’s environmental exposures throughout life and extensive cancer family history data.  In a related project, Dr. Mary Beth Terry and Dr. Regina Santella, professor of environmental health sciences, are looking at ways to enhance these models further through the incorporation of biomarker data.

A Study of Hepatocellular Cancer: Long non-coding RNAs (lnRs) play integral regulatory roles in cellular growth and differentiation and therefore play a key role in carcinogenesis. A study of hepatocellular cancer by Dr. Regina Santella and assistant professor of environmental health sciences, Dr. Jing Shen showed that the more aberrantly expressed lnRNAs in tumor tissues the poorer the survival.

In an upcoming JAMA Oncology commentary Dr. Alfred Neugut, Myron M. Studner Professor of Cancer Research and professor of epidemiology, makes the case for doubling down on prevention and increasing spending in public health to defeat cancer. “For cancer, like most diseases, the bulk of federal research dollars are directed to basic science or clinical therapeutics,” states Dr. Neugut.

Researchers Dr. Jeanne M. Stellman in the department of health policy and management and Dr. Steven D. Stellman in the department of epidemiology are partnering with hematology/oncology and dermatology clinicians at the Columbia University Medical Center and the Bronx VA Medical Center to study exposure to military herbicides such as Agent Orange in Vietnam as a possible cause of cutaneous T-Cell lymphoma (CTCL).

Dr. Steven D. Stellman and colleagues, who previously reported elevated thyroid and prostate cancer and multiple myeloma among first responders and recovery workers who spent up to nine months at Ground Zero following the 2001 terrorist attacks, have completed three additional years of cancer registry linkages and will shortly submit their updated report, which includes lower Manhattan residents and area workers.

In collaboration with a team of investigators, Drs. Steven Stellman, Al Neugut, Mary Beth Terry, and Regina Santella recently published studies of exposure to environmental sources of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) as risk factors for breast cancer, with special attention to early-life exposures, such as traffic and once-common home heating sources such as coal. Dr. Stellman and colleagues are using historical pollution and lake sediment data to extend exposure reconstruction back to the 1950s and earlier.

Cervical Cancer Screening: The availability of point-of-care testing for human papilloma virus (HPV) could simplify cervical cancer prevention programs expanding access to screening for women in low and middle income countries. As part of a National Cancer Institute-supported cooperative agreement, Dr. Louise Kuhn, epidemiologist at the Mailman School in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cape Town, is evaluating a new point-of-care HPV test developed by the diagnostics company Cepheid.  A clinical study is underway in South Africa and preliminary data support the clinical utility of the new screening test to improve cervical cancer prevention.

Obesity and Young Onset Colorectal Cancer: To evaluate the relationship between obesity and young onset colorectal cancer Dr. Christine Molmenti, postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology, studied obesity and subsequent development of colorectal cancer in individuals under 50 and found that early life obesity may be associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer in this age group. In addition, Dr. Molmenti and co-authors specifically collected data and analyzed trends in individuals under 50 in in New York State. While they concluded that data are limited in this age group, they reported that New York State trends parallel national trends for age and gender, but differ when stratified by race/ethnicity. This information is the first step in establishing obesity as a potential contributor to the national increase in young onset colorectal cancer incidence. Students in the Mailman School’s Summer Institute for Training Biostatistics (CSIBS) and Biostatistics Enrichment Summer Training Diversity Program (BEST), assisted on the project funded by the National Cancer Institute (Lead Investigator: Dr. Neugut)

Breast Cancer Screening Among Dominican Latinas: Ongoing research by Dr. Ana Abraido-Lanza, in the department of sociomedical sciences, and colleagues adds to the growing debate about the extent to which fatalistic beliefs about cancer affect mammography screening among Latinas. While their findings indicate fatalism is not associated with screening, perceived barriers, such as cost and not knowing how to get a mammogram, contribute to decreased screening.

In a paper on social networks and social support for healthy eating among Latina breast cancer survivors, Dr. Rachel Shelton in the department of sociomedical sciences and colleagues Drs. Parisa Tehranifar and Heather Greenlee in epidemiology, studied the social networks and perceived support for healthy eating in a sample of New York City breast cancer survivors of predominantly Dominican descent. Results showed that although friends are part of Latina breast cancer survivors’ social networks, spouses and children may provide greater support for healthy eating than friends.

Dr. Shelton also recently published on the differences in the resources, information, and support parents coping with pediatric cancer accessed from different types of network contacts and the role of health-related professionals in brokering new network ties.