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Researchers awarded NIH grant for dioxin study
Chemistry doctoral student Larry Kennedy has a personal reason to be interested in a new University of Memphis research project that is focusing on the potent carcinogen dioxin.

 “It’s been a dream of mine, a strong desire of mine, to be part of the cure for cancer, even if this is a very small part that I get to play,” said Kennedy, a helicopter pilot on leave from the Naval Academy who came to the U of M specifically to work on the study. “My wife died of skin cancer, so this is paramount to me. I had to watch her suffer.”

Dioxin was the main ingredient in Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War and still has effects on those who were exposed. It was also the reason the town of Times Beach, Mo., was shut down in the 1980s by the federal government due to the toxic levels found there after an environmental catastrophe.

(From left) Drs. Carrie Hayes Sutter, Thomas Sutter and Judy Cole received a $1.57 million grant   from the National Institutes of Health to study the carcinogen dioxin.
(From left) Drs. Carrie Hayes Sutter, Thomas Sutter and Judy Cole received a $1.57 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the carcinogen dioxin.

Dr. Thomas Sutter, the University’s W. Harry Feinstone Chair of Molecular Biology in the College of Arts & Sciences, and his collaborators have been awarded a multiyear, $1.57 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study human skin cells exposed to dioxin.

Dioxin is a chemical contaminant of industrial processes, like the incineration of plastics or paper bleaching. Every person possesses small amounts in the body. The majority of human exposure comes through the consumption of food, mainly beef, fish and milk products. The main risk of overexposure is the skin disease chloracne, but it may also cause cancer and other diseases.

“We have insights into how dioxin is actually affecting the epidermal barrier,” said Sutter. “That’s what protects us from the outside environment. If this is true, it would have important implications for other diseases like atopic dermatitis or psoriasis. By studying this toxin, we may actually learn about some very common skin diseases.”

Very small amounts of dioxin have been shown to be toxic in animals, but translating these effects to a specific risk to the human population has been challenging.

“This research is important because we all have dioxin in us,” said Dr. Carrie Hayes Sutter, co-investigator and research assistant professor in the biological sciences department. “We don’t know at this point whether it’s causing toxic effects or not. The EPA estimates that as many as one in 1,000 cancers in the U.S. may be caused by dioxin, but there is very little evidence to support these estimates. We hope our research will give us a better understanding of the threat of dioxin to humans.”

Another important aspect of the study is that dioxin binds the aryl hydrocarbon receptor. Researchers don’t know yet what the receptor normally does, but it’s found in all tissues. They hope to understand more about that receptor, and therefore have a better understanding of the involvement of the receptor in other diseases.

“Dioxin uses a protein inside a cell that it wasn’t designed to interact with,” said Dr. Judy Cole, co-investigator and associate professor in the biological sciences department. “Dioxin is not a chemical that your body makes, but it interacts with a protein that your body does utilize for other purposes. We don’t know a lot about that receptor to begin with. It might be a reasonably good target for therapeutic intervention in skin diseases because it’s clearly involved in the regulation of skin function.”

Cole, an expert in epidermal growth factor receptor, looks at how that modifies cellular responses to dioxin and how this interaction is occurring.

The results of these studies may have far-reaching effects.

“Ultimately, we hope that it benefits people and helps set better regulation of these chemicals so that we’re neither sparing nor overspending resources in the protection of human health,” said Tom Sutter.

For Kennedy, who plans to teach at Annapolis after he receives his PhD, the study is a way to make an impact on something that has touched his life.

“In a way, this is me fighting back, saying this has to end. There are a lot more questions than answers right now. It’s something very deserving of the funding and the hard work that’s going into it.”

— by Sara Hoover

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