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New Grants Give Researchers the GO-ahead

Annual Report - Winter 2010

By Scott Merville

An ingredient in the manufacture of plastics, bisphenol (BPA), is under investigation as a potential promoter of cancer.

And a new source of research funds is providing M. D. Anderson scientist Cheryl Lyn Walker, Ph.D., and colleagues an opportunity to swiftly assess its role in the development of prostate cancer.

Cheryl Lyn Walker, Ph.D., collaborates with Michael
Mancini, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine.

The $1.9 million Grand Opportunity (GO) grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is for an intense, two-year research program. GO grants funding high-impact ideas that lend themselves to short-term funding were awarded by the National Institutes of Health under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, designed to help restart the economy.

M. D. Anderson was awarded 84 ARRA research grants totaling $53.8 million over the next two years, including seven GO grants and three Challenge grants, highly competitive programs to rapidly advance cancer research.

Walker, professor in the Department of Carcinogenesis, leads a team studying BPA, a synthetic estrogen used in the manufacture of plastics and considered an endocrine disruptor — a substance that behaves like a hormone and interferes with the normal function of natural hormones.

“We’re all exposed to low levels of BPA in the environment,” Walker says. “One question is whether these exposures constitute a general health risk. The second issue is whether timing of exposure is critically important. Maybe there isn’t a concern for adults who normally have high levels of steroid hormones, but what’s the effect on newborns?”

Walker and colleagues will expose newborn rats to different levels of BPA and follow them into adulthood to see whether early life exposure results in an increased risk of prostate cancer later in life.

"Our research, with collaborators from Baylor College of Medicine and University of Cincinnati, will provide important new data ... for agencies that set regulatory guidelines for use of BPA."

They also will analyze how BPA binds to estrogen receptors, which turn on molecular pathways involved in cancer growth and also activate a pathway responsible for developmental tissue programming. Epigenetic processes, which regulate gene activity without altering or damaging the gene, are crucial to the programming that tells tissues what organs to become. Researchers suspect BPA exposure affects epigenetic signaling, leading to developmental reprogramming of the prostate and promoting the development of cancer.

“Our research, with collaborators from Baylor College of Medicine and University of Cincinnati, will provide important new data about how low-dose environmental exposures change the programming of the genome, information critical for agencies that set regulatory guidelines for use of BPA,” Walker says.

Earlier in 2009, M. D. Anderson scientists earned funding through Stand Up to Cancer, a new philanthropic effort of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, to fund Dream Teams of scientists to collaboratively hasten new treatments to patients.

In early 2010, research funds are expected to begin flowing from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Approved by Texas voters in 2007, CPRIT received its first allocation from the Texas Legislature, $450 million over two years.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center