University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute forms center for environmental oncology

09/20/04

Leading expert on environmental dangers and best selling author recruited as director and professor of Public Health

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 20 Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., award-winning author of the best-seller, When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, has been recruited by the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) to direct one of the country's first environmental oncology centers. The mission of the new center, based on an approach that is prevention-focused and multidisciplinary, is to reduce the risk of cancer by applying the latest scientific findings on the avoidable causes of cancer to protect individuals and the community at large.

"Most of our national efforts against cancer have focused on detecting and treating disease after it has occurred," said Ronald B. Herberman, M.D., director of UPCI and the UPMC Cancer Centers. "While this type of research is imperative, we simultaneously need to greatly improve our research efforts to develop effective interventions to address the known and suspected causes of cancer that may help us in our efforts at prevention. The development of this center is a crucial step in that direction, and Devra is unquestionably the best person for the job, given the breadth of her knowledge and expertise in this area."

"Dr. Davis is a national leader in the field of epidemiology. We anticipate that she will have a major impact in synthesizing the vast amount of scientific data that is available on the causes of cancer and converting this information into effective public policy and education programs," said Bernard Goldstein, M.D., dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), where Dr. Davis has been appointed professor of epidemiology.

In her role as director of the Environmental Oncology Center, Dr. Davis will work to create a center for excellence in research, education and public policy that seeks to identify novel causes of cancer; to develop and evaluate instruments for assessment and control of environmental risk factors for cancer and strategies to protect people from environmental cancer risks; and to create public and professional programs that inform, educate and change individual and institutional behaviors. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated two-thirds of all cancer cases are linked to environmental causes, many of these to lifestyle factors that can be modified.

"There are about 10 million cancer survivors in the United States today, each of whom is concerned with both their own survival and with preventing disease from occurring in their family members," said Dr. Davis. "Unfortunately, however, aside from smoking, drinking, other bad habits, and some workplace exposures, most cases of cancer occur in people who have led otherwise healthy lives. Patterns of the disease remain largely unexplained. With this new center, we aim to more fully understand our risks for developing cancer by identifying controllable conditions and urging prudent ways to lower the risk of the disease. One of our first goals is to discover and promote concrete steps that can be taken by individuals, hospitals, health professionals, the surrounding communities, and private and public sector organizations to prevent cancer and reduce the chance of recurrence."

According to Dr. Davis, research at the center seeks to address a key question: What causes the majority of people who are born with a healthy array of genes some 95 percent of women with breast cancer, for example to develop defects during their lifetime that lead to cancer? "While we know that there are more cases of cancer today because the population is older, and the technology for identifying disease has advanced, we cannot explain most cases of this disease," commented Dr. Davis.

A few of the environmental risk factors that will be examined at the center include personal habits, both good and bad, such as nutrition, exercise, alcohol drinking and smoking, as well as factors in the physical and chemical environment that have been linked to cancer such as toxic chemicals, indoor and outdoor air pollutants, chlorination by-products in domestic water, ingredients in personal care products, and organochlorine residues in animal and fish fat. By evaluating and consolidating the information on these and other cancer hazards and prevention strategies, the program seeks to create communication programs to inform patients, their families, the government and private sector about hazards that can be controlled to keep cancer from arising and the steps that can be taken to reduce the chance that cancer will recur.

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