Q&A with Robert Turesky, Ph.D., Masonic Chair in Cancer Causation

Turesky researchers

Robert Turesky, inaugural holder of the Masonic Chair in Cancer Causation, is on a mission: to get cancer-causing chemicals in food, drinks, and other products out of our lives.

What are the overarching goals of your research?

Identifying and minimizing exposures to hazardous chemicals is perhaps the most effective means of cancer prevention. My lab examines chemicals in the diet, environment, and other exposures such as tobacco smoke and their connection to cancer risk.

A big focus of ours has been the link between well-done or overcooked meats and colorectal, prostate, and mammary cancers. We’re also digging into connections that Chinese herbal medicines and tobacco have to kidney and bladder cancers. And we’re just beginning to explore the risk for breast cancer in breastfeeding mothers who are meat eaters versus vegetarians.

An important thing to note is that many of the chemicals we study aren’t hazardous in and of themselves. But once these chemicals enter our bodies, they can sometimes outsmart enzymes that normally eliminate them. These enzymes transform the chemicals into hazardous or reactive metabolites that can latch on to DNA, causing mutations to occur that may lead to the onset of cancer. Our goal is to understand how these chemicals get changed by our bodies and cause mutations and, ultimately, to help people make informed choices about what products to consume and how to prepare meat.

What have been your most significant findings over the past year? 

With Masonic support, we were able to purchase a new high-resolution accurate mass spectrometer, which is being used to identify hazardous chemicals in the environment and diet that may contribute to the risk of developing cancer.

We’re currently using this technology to identify potential bladder cancer-causing agents in the urine of tobacco smokers, and to characterize DNA damage in the bladders and prostates of cancer patients. So far, our data show:

  • The tobacco carcinogen 4-aminobiphenyl is efficiently bioactivated by human bladder cells and damages the bladder genome of cancer patients.
  • The cooked meat mutagen PhIP damages the genome of the prostate gland in some patients.
  • Lipid peroxides from oxidative stress and inflammation damage DNA and may contribute to the development and aggressiveness of prostate cancer.

These findings are important because there are ways to cook meats that mitigate the formation of the PhIP mutagen, and thus, reduce prostate cancer risk. Additionally, identifying harmful agents in the urine of smokers can help us pinpoint the chemicals in tobacco smoke that contribute to bladder cancer.

Finally, we are establishing DNA adductomics technologies to identify other chemicals in the diet and environment that damage the genome of the prostate, bladder, and kidney. These findings may help us identify important exposures to other hazardous chemicals that contribute to these cancers.

What does it mean to you to be named the Masonic Chair in Cancer Causation?

I’m thrilled and honored. It’s an affirmation that there are many people who believe in me and my work, that it’s important and improving human health. Research never happens in a vacuum and the Masons are joining a remarkable group of lab members, collaborators, and others at the U and beyond who are making this work successful.

When I joined the U faculty, I gave a talk at a symposium for the Masons about cancer. I marveled at what the Masons do and how they contribute to the U to advance cancer research and care. I’m extremely grateful. I hope they are proud of what we have done and will continue to be proud into the future.  

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