Fox Chase Cancer Center's Joseph Testa receives 1999 Irving J. Selikoff Award for Cancer Research

December 02, 1999

PHILADELPHIA (December 3, 1999)-Dr. Joseph R. Testa of Churchville, Pa., a cancer geneticist who directs the human genetics program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, received a 1999 Irving J. Selikoff Award for Cancer Research today at a luncheon and forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The Ramazzini Institute for Occupational and Environmental Health Research bestows the Selikoff Awards, which are named for a pioneer in occupational and environmental health. The award honors Testa for "outstanding contributions in understanding the origins of mesothelioma." This cancer, associated with exposure to loose asbestos, usually starts in the chest lining, or mesothelium, of the chest cavity and lungs, but it can spread aggressively to the lining of the abdomen and to other organs.

Although no one has yet determined exactly how much asbestos exposure is necessary to cause mesothelioma, Testa's laboratory research is revealing the various cancerous changes that occur in affected cells. This knowledge may lead to earlier detection and also help improve treatment and prevention. Testa uses an array of techniques to examine the genetic alterations produced in the formation of mesothelioma. This kind of research may show how normal cells become cancer cells and provide clues about how to halt this process at the molecular level.

Finding that mesothelioma cells have lost some basic genetic material, Testa has pinpointed missing segments on seven different chromosomes-the rodlike, DNA-packed structures that carry all the genes in a cell. In two of these chromosomes, he has identified genes that are missing or fail to function in mesothelioma cells. His research team is working to identify the affected genes in the five other damaged chromosomes.

All appear to be "anticancer" or tumor-suppressor genes-genes that normally act to suppress cancerous growth. This and other genetic actions are carried out by proteins-the body's workhorses-with each gene ordering the cell to make a different protein at the appropriate time. But when a gene is lost or inactive, the protein is not produced. This basic research to target specific genes involved in mesothelioma lays the foundation for future therapies tailored to each patient.

"Identifying the protein each gene produces will provide a blueprint for new drugs," Testa said. "Such drugs would mimic these proteins and might restore the cells' normal function." In effect, this might return cancer cells to normal rather than killing them-the aim of current cancer treatment. Meanwhile, early detection remains key for those at risk of mesothelioma. The disease is hard to diagnose, so it is crucial for patients to tell their doctors if they have been exposed to loose asbestos and might be among the 3,000 Americans who develop mesothelioma every year.

Testa receives support for his research from the Mesothelioma Fund established in 1992 by Local 14 of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers in partnership with the Insulation Contractors Association. The membership of each contributes an equal amount on an ongoing basis for every hour worked in the insulation industry.

Within a few months, after Fox Chase Cancer Center's new Prevention Pavilion is complete, Testa and his medical colleagues plan to start a new program for Local 14 members at high risk of mesothelioma. Although the program will start with screening, early detection of the cancer is not the only goal. Testa will study cell samples to look for genetic markers and other evidence of cellular changes leading to cancer. The hope is to identify premalignant cells and offer early treatment or preventive therapy that will halt or reverse the progression to mesothelioma.

The late Dr. Selikoff founded the Ramazzini Institute in 1992 as a multi-national institute-without-walls to promote research partnerships among scientists from universities and medical centers with government, foundations, unions and employers. The Selikoff Awards program recognizes scientists for new discoveries about molecular changes in cells, how they repair themselves and how to detect damaged cells.

In addition to Testa, Dr. William N. Rom of New York University School of Medicine received a Selikoff Award for Cancer Research, for "outstanding contributions in understanding the origins of lung cancer." Dr. Antonio Giordano of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, a member of the Ramazzini Institute board, presented this year's awards.

The program included a keynote speech by Dr. Linda Rosenstock, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and a six-member panel discussing "The Status of Genetic Testing in the Workplace." Testa spoke on "Mesothelioma, Genes and the Workplace."

Past Selikoff Award winners include Dr. Alfred G. Knudson Jr. of Center City Philadelphia, a Fox Chase Cancer Center Distinguished Scientist. He and Dr. Joseph F. Fraumeni Jr. of the National Cancer Institute shared the 1996 award as "leaders in cell genetics to detect and redirect the chain of events that lead to cancer."
Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 36 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. The Center's activities include basic and clinical research; prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center

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