September 9, 2008
Rutgers to See If N.J. Lifestyle Causes Cancer
By BOB GROVES, STAFF WRITER
New Jersey could be harmful to your hormones, say scientists launching a program to study social and environmental links to glandular disease.
The new Center for Endocrine Research at Rutgers University will examine whether stress, toxins and bad habits are the reason rates of cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and hyperthyroidism in New Jersey are among the highest in the nation.
Bad air, water, food and lifestyles, as well as genetics, can adversely affect hormone glands, which are also tied in with metabolism and the immune system.
Everything from tough jobs to heavy traffic makes New Jersey one of the most stressful states in the country, said Dipak Sarkar, a professor of animal sciences at Rutgers and director of the center.
"I think it's the lifestyle here," Sarkar said. "You leave the house and drive and you always have to watch out for the rest of the drivers. You really have to work hard to survive. You need a high income, which means more work, which means more stress."
The $4.5 million center, operated jointly with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, opens Monday on Rutgers' Cook College agricultural campus in East Brunswick. The center will be funded by state and federal grants.
About 40 research scientists in different fields at Rutgers and UMDNJ will collaborate and work with locally-based pharmaceutical companies to find causes, treatments and cures for environmentally- related diseases.
The center will take a multi-disciplinary approach, Sarkar said. "It's much different from a health specialty," he said. "If you see a lot of toxic material leaking into water from a chemical plant, you need more than toxicology" to deal with the resultant health problems, he said.
Sarkar is focusing on the connection between stress and cancer, and the role played by endorphins, the protein chemicals in the brain that reduce pain. Studies have shown that cancer patients who can't control stress progressed slower in treatment, he said. Cancer rates were also found to be higher in people with schizophrenia, depression and fetal alcoholism syndrome, he said.
"Endorphins make you feel good, and when they are not functioning it makes you feel depressed," Sarkar said. "So we hypothesized whether people with higher cancer rates have abnormal endorphin function."
Sarkar found that injecting rats with endorphins reduced the rate of prostate cancer in the rats by more than 95 percent.
"What we are trying to figure out is, do stem cells make endorphins that prevent cancer by activating immune cells, the natural killer cells that kill all foreign and tumor cells inside the body?" he said.
Stress causes neurotransmitters in the brain to produce large amounts of adrenaline, a hormone that prevents the death of cancer cells, he said. The brain's control of stress may also impact other diseases, such as diabetes, Sarkar said.
"I really want to control these stress problems so that we have better health," Sarkar said.
Behavior and nutrition also influence health, said Nicola Partridge of UMDNJ.
"The environment is a lot bigger than just bad air," said Partridge, chair of physiology and biophysics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "It can also be whether you don't get out and exercise or don't consume enough calcium."
Partridge has her own lab at UMDNJ, but said the new center at Rutgers will be a partnership for sharing ideas, training graduate students and interacting with the pharmaceutical industry.
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