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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Michael C. R. Alavanja, Dr.P.H.

Senior Investigator

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Phone: 301-496-6641

Michael C. R. Alavanja, Dr.P.H.

Michael C. R. Alavanja, Dr.P.H.

Organization:National Cancer Institute
Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology
Address:NCI Shady Grove
Room 6E602


Dr. Alavanja received a Dr.P.H. from the School of Public Health of Columbia University. Prior to joining the NCI, he served as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Health and Epidemiology at Hunter College School of Health Sciences and as an epidemiologist and section chief at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In 1983, Dr. Alavanja joined the NCI as a Special Assistant for Epidemiology in the Office of the Associate Director for the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program. In 1996, he transferred to the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch of DCEG. Dr. Alavanja received the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Meritorious Service Medal for initiating the Agricultural Health Study, the Outstanding Service Medal for work in quantitative risk assessment of environmental carcinogens, and two Commendation Medals, one for research on environmental causes of cancer and the other for studies of lung cancer etiology. He has received additional awards from the U.S. EPA, the NIH, and the U.S. PHS. He was a member of the NCI Intramural Advisory Board and is a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, serving on its membership committee.

Research Interests

Our research focuses on interdisciplinary studies to investigate cancer risks associated with environmental and occupational exposures. Both host and environmental risk factors are examined, including possible gene-environment interactions. Studies also include testing and application of innovative methods of exposure assessment.

Carcinogen Exposures in the Agricultural Environment

Studies around the world have observed that farmers and other agricultural workers are at elevated risk of several specific cancers, despite lower overall mortality and, in particular, cancer mortality. In this occupational group, excess risks are observed for Hodgkin disease, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the brain, skin, lip, stomach, and prostate. Work-related exposures suspected of contributing to the excesses include pesticides, sunlight, viruses, mycotoxins, well water contaminants, and a variety of other agents encountered in the agricultural environment.

In collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency, we are conducting the Agricultural Health Study to evaluate exposures that may be responsible for the cancer excesses. This prospective cohort study of about 90,000 participants includes licensed private pesticide applicators, their spouses, and commercial pesticide applicators. Cohort members are being followed to collect data on cancer incidence and mortality. An evaluation will also be undertaken on disease risks among spouses and children of farmers. The study includes detailed exposure analyses and assessments of non-cancer health outcomes. Blood, urine, and epithelial cheek cells are being obtained from a sample of cohort members to conduct biomarker studies of exposure and effect in a series of nested case control studies. We have also collaborated with investigators at the University of Iowa to evaluate pesticide exposures using fluorescent dyes and to study the epidemiology of injury among cohort members.

Lung Cancer

A series of population-based, case-control studies of lung cancer among smoking and non-smoking women identified a number of new etiologic associations. Using an innovative technique to estimate radon exposure retrospectively, we detected a significant dose-response between lung cancer risk and residential radon at levels commonly found in North American and European homes. Environmental tobacco smoke was also found to be a significant risk factor, particularly among half the population with a GSTM1 (null) genotype. In addition, risk of lung cancer was associated with dietary intake of red meat, especially when cooked well done. The heterocyclic aromatic amine, 2-Amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline (MeIQX), formed in meat cooked at high temperature, was identified as a risk factor. A protective effect was related to regular consumption of fruits and vegetables. Women with pre-existing nonmalignant chronic lung disease were at a 40% excess risk of lung cancer. Risks were also significantly elevated among women with a family history of lung cancer. In our Missouri study, we examined p53 and other markers of genetic susceptibility to evaluate potential gene-environment interactions. We also studied the health effects of heterocyclic aromatic amine exposure from consumption of meats cooked at high temperature.