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Masonic Scholar targets biomarkers to help detect lung cancer early

Fekadu Kassie, D.V.M., Ph.D., hopes to find ways to prevent lung cancer.

The frustration in his voice is obvious when Fekadu Kassie, D.V.M., Ph.D., explains the problem: “Lung cancer is the most fatal of all malignancies, mainly because it’s usually detected after the tumor has spread to other body parts. There are no dependable markers that can be used to detect the disease at early stages.”

Kassie’s goal? Develop biomarkers for lung cancer and identify effective tools for preventing it.

This Masonic Scholar came to the University of Minnesota in 2004 to work in the Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Research Program. In 2008, Kassie was recruited as an assistant professor of oncology jointly by the Masonic Cancer Center and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Using the grant he received for being named a Masonic Scholar, Kassie has zeroed in on lung inflammation and its role in cancer.

“There are more than a dozen inflammatory agents in cigarette smoke,” he explains, “and the likelihood of developing cancer is three-fold higher in a person with mild to moderate lung inflammation—and 10-fold higher in people with severe inflammation.”

Now Kassie is developing a mouse model of inflammation-related lung cancer. He’s already discovered that chronic inhalation of a potent inflammatory agent found in cigarette smoke increased the number and size of tobacco smoke carcinogen-induced lung tumors in mice by about two-fold.

The next step is to develop a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory agent, Kassie says. He’s currently studying indole-3-carbinol, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli, and silibinin, found in milk thistle seeds.

“If we can develop markers for inflammation-related cancers, we could catch the disease in its earliest stages,” he says. “That would be huge.”

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