U researcher works on cancer prevention among smokers

Mike Zacharias

While many state, federal and independent efforts aim to prevent smoking, few resources are put toward cancer prevention for current smokers.

University professor Stephen Hecht is working on how to help those who cannot drop the habit.

“We feel that it’s important to develop alternate approaches to prevention of tobacco-related cancer other than the primary approach, which is, of course, to get people to stop,” said Hecht, a professor for the University’s cancer center.

While Hecht said prevention is an important approach, the prevalence of smokers in recent years remains relatively constant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 20 percent of Minnesota’s adults are regular smokers.

“Right now about 25 percent of men, 25 percent of adult women in the United States smoke,” Hecht said. “That’s about 48 million people.”

Hecht’s research, funded by grants, aims to do three things. First, Hecht said he is trying to determine human responses to more than 50 cancer-causing chemicals, called carcinogens, in cigarette smoke.

“We want to understand how humans respond to these chemicals, what happens in the human’s system that causes these chemicals to cause cancer,” Hecht said. “Then use that knowledge to develop ways to interfere with the process.”

Hecht measured levels of chemicals in smokers and non-smokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke.

The second step involves determining why only approximately 15 percent of heavy smokers will get lung cancer.

“It’s our theory that some people have a kind of metabolic machinery that allows them to detoxify these carcinogens very readily, actually change them into a form that is very readily excreted,” Hecht said.

“We want to identify who those people are and try to capture the essence of some of these protective systems,” he said.

The final area of Hecht’s research deals with the prevention of cancer through naturally occurring chemicals.

“Our focus is on things that occur in vegetables,” Hecht said. “There are many studies that show that vegetable consumption is protective against smoking-induced cancers, particularly lung cancer.”

Phenethyl isothiocyanate – or PEITC – is a chemical compound found in broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage that has shown promise in preventing cancer in animals exposed to carcinogens, Hecht said.

“Our goal is to develop these compounds to overcome all the hurdles that you need to overcome when you go from animal studies to humans,” Hecht said. “And to ultimately get them into human use for both smokers and ex-smokers.”

Jean Forster, a University professor of epidemiology, said Hecht’s work is important for people who do smoke, but much can still be done to prevent smoking.

“I think we still have quite a ways to go,” Forster said. “There are certainly places that have lower smoking rates than Minnesota, so I believe that Minnesota too can lower the smoking rate.”

Forster said Florida is an example of a state that dramatically lowered its smoking rate with a barrage of prevention programs.

But those who aren’t persuaded to avoid smoking can benefit from Hecht’s research.

“My failures who go on to become lifetime smokers are the people that hopefully will benefit from his work,” Forster said.


Mike Zacharias welcomes comments at [email protected]