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UofL researcher receives millions to study how metals cause lung cancer

John Pierce Wise Sr. has studied the connection between exposure to metals and cancer for nearly three decades.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One University of Louisville researcher has received a $6.7 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to further study how exposure to metals links to lung cancer.

John Pierce Wise Sr., a professor in the university's department of pharmacology and toxicology, has been investigating the connection between metals and cancer for nearly three decades. 

He has reported significant findings of the effects of metals on chromosomes in lung cancer and how those effects differ in humans and whales.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in the U.S., and Kentucky has the highest rates of lung cancer incidence and mortality of any state.

Scientists know that metals are some of the top environmental causes of human lung cancer, but they don't fully understand how exactly metals cause the disease.

Wise's research has found that one such metal, hexavalent chromium, causes chromosomes in the lungs to be increased, deleted or rearranged in inappropriate ways. 

He said the metal essentially causes a break in DNA's helix shape. 

Wise said that chromium induces the same number of breaks in human and whale cells, but in whales, the breaks result in much less chromosome instability and cancer.

"One of the things we’ve found is that chromium also inhibits the repair of these breaks in humans – you get the breaks and you can’t fix them," Wise said. "In whale cells, you get the breaks, but you can fix them. What about whales is protective or corrective? That’s what we’re digging into."

Wise's research involves a team of scientists across the globe who will be investigating this process further in hopes of eventually discovering ways to prevent and reverse metals-induced lung cancer in people.

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