Dr. Huffman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and a 2009 recipient of a Foundation research fellowship. One of Dr. Huffman’s major research goals has been “to uncover exactly what is it about being obese that drives cancer risk and to see if this relationship is in fact a causal one.” Currently, he is working towards this goal by examining whether there is a causal link between intra-abdominal fat—the fat that we store deep in our tummy—and risk of colon tumors.
1. What impact could your findings have on preventing colon cancer and perhaps other cancers?
Obesity has been associated with many different types of cancers, including colorectal, breast, endometrial, liver and prostate. However, these studies are only associations and cannot prove that being obese per se is the cause, rather than say the poor eating habits and lack of exercise which led to it. Thus, demonstrating that intra-abdominal fat on its own is a causal contributor to colon cancer risk, and possibly other cancers as well, will be critically important to advancing our understanding of this disease. The goal will then be to successfully identify the important factor(s) linking obesity to colorectal and other cancers. Such information could have a very important clinical impact by providing an additional screening tool, which could be measured in blood, to identify those that might be at risk as well as to provide a therapeutic target for prevention and/or treatment. Most important, demonstrating causality should raise public awareness that weight control is a critical part of any strategy to reduce ones’ risk of being diagnosed with or dying from cancer.
2. How has receiving a Prevent Cancer Foundation grant impacted your research?
Without the generous support of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, the important studies which I am currently conducting would, frankly, not have been possible. To date, our results have been very exciting and supportive of our hypothesis that abdominal obesity is indeed a causal risk factor for colorectal cancer. These data will most certainly set the stage for more detailed studies to determine exactly what is it about intra-abdominal fat that raises cancer risk.
3. Why is it important to fund research in the field of cancer prevention and early detection?
The most effective approach to reducing cancer-related suffering and death is to better understand how to prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. We now know that many cancer risk factors are in fact avoidable, with poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity and tobacco use among the major culprits. However, we still do not entirely understand all the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how some of these behaviors actually cause cancer. Likewise, we do not yet fully understand why, for example, obesity affects the risk of getting certain cancers more than others, and why these risks can be very different between men and women. If we are ever to ‘stamp out’ cancer, it is absolutely vital that we first understand how our behaviors can either exacerbate or mitigate our risks.
Click here to read more about Dr. Huffman’s research in Part I of this Researcher Q&A.