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What is the link between cancer and pesticides?

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Published on Wednesday, 24 October 2018

During the first Lëtz Go Gold charity run, researchers from the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) have received 264,000 euros from the Kriibskrank Kanner Foundation. One of the supported research projects will be conducted at the University of Luxembourg and in collaboration with the LIH to study the effects of pesticides on the gut and their role in cancer development.

Pesticides represent a class of chemicals used for the protection of agricultural products. Over the past years, the concern over their health impact has dramatically increased. Population-based studies have reported an association between pesticide exposure and the emergence of chronic diseases such as different types of cancers.

“Unpublished results obtained by the researchers on the exposure of the Luxembourgish population show that pesticides can be detected in 100% of the investigated individuals and that the exposure often includes pesticides whose use is banned for many years. Importantly, one population, which is particularly sensitive to pesticides, are young children. Exposure to pesticides, especially early during lifetime, is linked to an increased risk of developing different cancer types among which leukaemia, lymphomas and brain tumours in children”, explains Anne Goeres, Managing Director at the Kriibskrank Kanner Foundation.

Thus, the foundation selected the research project “Effects of pesticides on the gut and their role in cancer development” in the framework of the Lëtz Go Gold charity run organised on 29 September 2018 in Luxembourg city. The aim of this event was to raise money to finance research against paediatric cancers to find new cures, improve existing ones and learn more about the causes of paediatric cancers.

In this context, the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) have decided to join their forces to better understand how pesticides affect human health and develop strategies to circumvent the deleterious effects of pesticides.

Dr. Brice Appenzeller from the LIH will study the pesticide exposure of children by determining the levels of certain pesticides in their hair. Indeed, he was able to confirm that hairs represent a reliable matrice for the detection of pesticides as he could determine a good correlation between pesticide levels in blood and hair samples. These analyses should provide information on the exposure as well as the current levels of pesticides to which children may have been exposed.

Dr. Brice Appenzeller

Prof. Serge Haan

In parallel, Prof. Serge Haan and Dr. Elisabeth Letellier from the Molecular Disease Mechanisms group (MDM) at the University of Luxembourg will focus on the molecular mechanisms and signalling cascades induced by pesticides. First, in collaboration with Dr. Mahesh Desai from the LIH, they will study the influence of certain pesticides on the bacteria of the colon, which can lead to a disturbance of the equilibrium existing between the different bacterial populations. This imbalance may lead to higher susceptibilities to different pathogens, which ultimately could trigger chronic inflammatory diseases among which cancer. In addition, the MDM group will also focus on the influence of pesticides on colorectal cancer initiation and progression. The project founded by the Fondation Kriibskrank Kanner is indeed part of a larger project, which is also supported financially by the Fondation Cancer and during which they will determine the effects of pesticides in tumour initiation and progression in colorectal cancer. 

“We have established normal cell and tumour cultures from different patients. These primary cells are a considerable asset to better understand the effect of pesticides as we can generate in vitro "small colons" from healthy and cancerous tissues, allowing us to study the impact of pesticides on the initiation and progression of cancer. Our goal will be to identify molecules and genes induced and modified as well as transformed by pesticides. Thus, we could target these molecules to prevent and/or slow the progression of cancer.” says Dr. Elisabeth Letellier from the MDM group, PI in the MDM group.  

“Such a project is only possible with the concerted effort of different groups with different interdisciplinary approaches, and especially the financial support by the Fondation Kriibskrank Kanner and Fondation Cancer are crucial for the successful completion of this project,” completes Prof. Serge Haan, Head of the MDM group.