In the last 15 years, the development of new biological tools for studying genes has given researchers a whole new body of laboratory techniques for characterizing human populations. COEH alumna Elin Kure is among the scientists throughout the world who are using these techniques to learn more about what makes people more prone to diseases like cancer.
After earning her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences at Berkeley in 1989, Kure returned to her native Norway to begin work as a post-doctoral fellow for the National Institute of Occupational Health in Oslo. As part of an international team, she studied the blood plasma of coke oven plant workers and other people living in a highly industrialized area in Poland, compared with a rural control group, to determine their exposure to carcinogens in the air and to learn how these carcinogens interacted with proteins in the blood. Kure and her colleagues next adapted biochemical techniques for studying changes in the tumors of lung cancer patients, extracting DNA from the tumors and studying the frequency, location and type of mutations in the p53 gene, a tumor suppressor (i.e., a gene that prevents a cell from dividing) suspected of being a target for carcinogenic action. Their preliminary findings support epidemiological evidence that women may be at greater risk of contracting lung cancer from cigarette smoking than men. Women's tumors showed a higher frequency of mutations that are linked to certain compounds in cigarette smoke.
Now in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the Telemark Central Hospital in Skien, two hours out of Oslo, Kure con-tinues to study patients' genetic susceptibility to carcinogenic exposure. "Some people can't detoxify as well as others and may be at higher risk. We're interested in look-ing at this on a population basis," she said.
Tissue and Blood Data Bank
To learn more about genes that may make people more prone to cancer than others, Kure is working with Telemark Central Hospital colleague Inger-Lise Hansteen and others to create a tissue and blood data bank for breast cancer. Her aim is to link certain compounds in the tissue to exposures patients have had. With Myrto Petreas, an old friend from student days at Berkeley who now works on exposure assessment in breast cancer at the Hazardous Materials Laboratory of the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) in Berkeley, Kure has developed a questionnaire that will illuminate environmental risk factors by asking patients for dietary, occupational, medical, and other information. Eventually, the researchers hope to obtain funding for a joint study that will combine chemical measurements (performed in Berkeley), genetic testing (performed in Norway), and statistical analysis to determine what elements may be significant in determining if one person will have breast cancer and another will not.