Examining the link between smoking, areca nut use, and cancer

SamirIrina StepanovThe areca nut, which is grown across Asia and used by almost a tenth of the world’s population, functions as a mild stimulant, similar to caffeine, and has played an important role in many social customs, religious practices, and cultural rituals in regions of Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific.

But the nut also causes serious health risks. The World Health Organization classifies it as a carcinogen and many studies have shown a link between areca nut use and oral or esophageal cancer.

U faculty members Irina Stepanov, Ph.D., and Samir Khariwala, M.D., are especially interested in the risk for developing head and neck cancer among people who use the nut and smoke cigarettes. With Masonic support, they’re preparing to lead a study with Hunan Cancer Hospital in China on the effects of both. Their next big step will be to recruit 250 participants who use one or both products and to assess carcinogen exposure and DNA damage in these individuals. Because of the high rates of smoking and areca nut use in China, their research could be especially impactful for many individuals.

Ultimately, Stepanov and Khariwala hope to better understand how these substances contribute to head and neck cancer so that they can identify at-risk individuals and create targeted strategies for prevention and treatment.  

“While there are areca nut users in the U.S., conducting studies that better characterize the risk of this harmful product is not feasible due to relatively low levels of use nationally. Masonic support will help us pursue the unique opportunity in China to investigate head and neck cancer development, treatment, and prevention as it relates to areca nut use and smoking. Such pilot funding can go a long way in generating valuable data that will eventually lead to key discoveries and long-term public health impact.”

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