Researcher Q&A with Derek Huffman, PhD Part I

September 22, 2011

This month the Foundation is proud to highlight the work of Dr. Derek Huffman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. Dr. Huffman received a two-year fellowship from the Foundation in the spring of 2009. His research focuses on finding a causal link between abdominal fat and tumor risk by examining colon tumors.

1.  What led you to the field of colon cancer research?

There is overwhelming evidence that shows your likelihood of being diagnosed with and dying from many cancers is markedly increased if you are obese. For example, obesity increases the risk of dying from colorectal cancer by nearly half for women and almost doubles it for men. In recent years, we have seen an alarming rise in obesity rates in the U.S. and around the developed world, and this trend poses a serious public health concern for cancer control and prevention. Because my background is in cancer and obesity-related research, one of my major goals has been to uncover exactly what is it about being obese that drives cancer risk and to see if this relationship is in fact a causal one. In order to better understand this link, I decided to study colorectal cancer because it is among the most strongly-linked cancers to obesity and diet. To further aid in this endeavor, I was able to partner with the Colon Cancer Research Group at Einstein, which in addition to their general expertise on this disease, have a long and distinguished track record in examining the role of diet on colon cancer risk.

2.  Tell us about your research to find a causal link between abdominal fat and tumor risk by examining colon tumors.

When it comes to our health, where we store our fat is much more important than how much fat we have. In fact, some of the fat we accumulate, like on our arms, hips, or the belly fat that we can grab onto, might make our clothes fit tighter but doesn’t seem to pose a major risk to our metabolic health. However, the fat that we store deeper in our tummy, this so called ‘intra-abdominal fat’, is quite toxic and is a stronger predictor than total body fat for your likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes and even cancer, suggesting that location is key. Interestingly, intra-abdominal fat can also be found in many animals, including rats and mice, making them a useful model to study in the lab for this purpose. With this in mind, we developed a clever technique where we surgically remove much of this intra-abdominal fat from rodents. Quite remarkably, we found that rats that had this ‘bad’ fat surgically removed had less diabetes and also live much longer than animals that did not have this fat removed. Currently, in studies supported by the Prevent Cancer Foundation, we are employing this approach in a mouse model genetically prone to develop colon cancer in hopes of demonstrating that removing this ‘bad’ fat will prevent or lessen the development of tumors in these mice, thus demonstrating causality for the first time.

Check back next week for Part II of Dr. Huffman’s Researcher Q&A!

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