Study Finds Biological Link Between Neighborhood and Disease Risk

PHILADELPHIA (April 3, 2017) – Researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center have begun to establish a biological basis for the long-held, but not well-tested theory that neighborhood exposures can impact health outcomes. Shannon Lynch, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase, led a team that found that a biomarker implicated in cancer, telomere length (TL), could be influenced by sociodemographic circumstances associated with neighborhood. The study will be published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in a special focus issue on geospatial approaches to cancer control and population sciences. The early April publication will coincide with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2017.

This study bridges the social and biological sciences through methodologic approaches that test whether neighborhood can impact cancer risk. Lynch and her colleagues sought to determine the independent effect of neighborhood exposures on TL using standard multilevel linear regression models and quantile regression—a nonlinear method from social science that had not been previously used in biomarker studies. They tested effects for population density, urban crowding, residential stability, socioeconomic status, and others, finding that telomeres—a sort of protective end cap on chromosomes—can be shortened by some of these neighborhood circumstances.

“This study highlights the importance of considering multilevel risk factors and their effects on biologic processes related to cancer,” Lynch said. “It complements existing studies demonstrating associations between neighborhood and cancer outcomes by showing how social environment might influence disease through biology.”

The group recently published a new methodology, which compared more than 14,000 neighborhood variables with prostate cancer aggressiveness, and identified 17 that were most significantly associated with advanced prostate cancer in white men.

Future studies are needed, Lynch said, including investigating the ways that underlying genetics and social environment can affect TL and how this information could be used to develop interventions to possibly increase TL. 

Fox Chase Cancer Center (Fox Chase), which includes the Institute for Cancer Research and the American Oncologic Hospital and is a part of Temple Health, is one of the leading comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase is also one of just 10 members of the Alliance of Dedicated Cancer Centers. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence six consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach. It is the policy of Fox Chase Cancer Center that there shall be no exclusion from, or participation in, and no one denied the benefits of, the delivery of quality medical care on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, disability, age, ancestry, color, national origin, physical ability, level of education, or source of payment.

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