Health care professionals estimate that less than two percent of chemicals on the market have been tested for cancer-causing properties, including over 100,000 chemicals used by Americans each year and around 1,000 that are newly introduced each year. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Boston University School of Public Health, the BU Bioinformatics Program, and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health have developed a new method for measuring the cancer risk associated with common chemicals.

"This work has confirmed that it is possible to predict the long-term cancer risk by measuring the short term effects," Dr. Stefano Monti, associate professor of medicine at BUSM and a member of the BU Superfund Research Program, said in a statement. "As a result of our findings we expect that accurate and cost-effective screening for evaluating the carcinogenic potential of the more than the 80,000 chemicals currently in commercial use soon will be a reality."

Monti and his colleagues used healthy human tissue that was exposed to various chemicals to examine the effects of the gene expression response in the liver. The research team said that analyzing the health consequences of prolonged exposure to pollutants has become paramount since it is recognized that environmental pollutants play a role in human cancer development, but it is also under-studied. By measuring the short-term effects of chemical exposure, researchers were able to accurately predict cancer risk associated with long-term effects of the same amount of exposure.

"By comparing the responses to known chemical carcinogens and non-carcinogens, we were able to extract a 'signature' and an associated predictive model capable of discriminating with high accuracy between the two," Monti added. "Furthermore, by inspection of the coordinated set of genes driving the response to chemical exposure, we were able to zoom in to the potential mechanisms driving cancer induction.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the link between cancer and certain chemicals dates back to the late 1700s when an English doctor reported a growing number of chimney sweepers had developed scrotum cancer after being exposed to soot. There are several types of cancer that are associated with certain occupations and chemicals that people in that occupation are commonly exposed to, including lung, bladder, larynx, pharynx, mesothelioma, skin, soft-tissue sarcoma, liver, and lip. Around 40 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime and upward of 20 percent will die as a result.

Source: Monti S, et al. PLOS One. 2014.