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Tim Beischlag

Health sciences researcher Tim Beischlag has found that carcinogens such as dioxins and PCBs can play a role in disrupting the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer tumours.

Eco-toxins can help suppress breast cancer

February 5, 2009

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SFU health sciences researcher Tim Beischlag has found that ubiquitous environmental contaminants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) could play a pivotal role in conquering breast cancer.

Beischlag says the known carcinogens activate a key protein—also found in the human body—that can suppress breast cancer growth.

The protein, known as an aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), binds to DNA and activates genes that help regulate hormone activity in humans but also enable environmental contaminants to trigger uncontrolled cell growth. This can lead to a multitude of cancers associated with dioxin- and PCB-laden substances such as cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes.

During the last 12 years, while unraveling how environmental contaminants activate AHR, Beischlag discovered that he could manipulate the protein pharmacologically to prevent it from binding to DNA and turning on genes.

"When the DNA binding was stopped, I discovered that the protein could also stop cell growth and has great potential as an anti-tumour agent," explains the associate professor.

Beischlag and his colleagues have developed chemical compounds that mimic the beneficial effect of environmental contaminants and used them to disrupt estrogen-dependent breast-cancer growth. AHR regulates estrogen activity, a hormone involved in many neurological, physiological and developmental processes in the human body.

Given that more than half of breast-cancer cases are estrogen-dependent, Beischlag is ecstatic that his research could generate treatments with fewer side effects than chemotherapy and radiation.

But, he adds: "It wasn’t a desire to cure breast cancer that channeled me in this direction. I was academically fascinated by how genes turn on and off."

Beischlag will be among five speakers at Fashion Fusion Fiesta, an SFU staff-organized fundraiser Feb. 6 at the Burnaby campus’ Diamond Alumni Centre to raise money for the 2009 Weekend To End Breast Cancer (see related article at left).

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