Enlisting fairgoers in lifesaving research

Chiara Viviana

When it comes to understanding the causes of cancer, many complex factors contribute, from genetics, to lifestyle choices, to environmental toxins. 

Silvia Balbo, Ph.D., part of the U’s environmental health sciences faculty, is on a quest to understand the DNA modifications caused by different exposures so that this knowledge can be used to stop cancer from taking hold. 

With Masonic support, Balbo and her team recently took a big step forward in their work by collecting biospecimens from more than 150 volunteers at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair. The samples they obtained have been a valuable addition to a biorepository that Masonic Cancer Center researchers are using to examine the impact of different environmental exposures on cancer and a variety of other health measures. 

“The continuous availability of biospecimens is critical to maintaining the flow of research because without them, researchers would have to wait for samples to be available, losing valuable time,” says Balbo. 

Balbo’s State Fair initiative has helped increase the visibility of oral cancer risk factors, in particular. Oral cancer has been a focus of Balbo’s lab for years and samples collected from fairgoers who are smokers and vapers, as well as nonsmokers and nonvapers, will be an important resource.

“Masonic funding allows us to pursue research that has a true direct impact on our community. These studies have the potential to translate into tangible measures to prevent cancer and support better treatments by allowing us to understand how cancer develops in the first place.”

Understanding the link between oral cancer and Fanconi anemia

In addition to providing valuable data on cancer risk factors in adults, the work of Balbo’s team at the Minnesota State Fair will shed light on oral cancer risk factors in children with Fanconi anemia, a severe genetic disorder, which affects the production of blood cells and ultimately leads to bone marrow failure. Children born with Fanconi anemia have substantially shorter life expectancies and significantly greater risk of developing cancer in the oral cavity. The oral samples collected from healthy kids at the State Fair will provide comparative data to investigate why children with Fanconi anemia are at increased risk of developing oral cancer.

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