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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Studying Exposure Assessment and Cancer Risk: Iowa and Beyond

Profile of Tenure-Track Investigator Laura Beane Freeman, Ph.D.

March 2011 - Linkage Newsletter

by Nancy Volkers, M.A.

Laura Beane Freeman, Ph.D., of the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB), is currently studying about 57,000 farmers and 32,000 of their spouses in her work as co-principal investigator of DCEG's Agricultural Health Study (AHS). Her connection to the topic may be more personal than that of most researchers: Dr. Beane Freeman grew up on a farm in Iowa.

Having a working knowledge of daily life on a farm has helped Dr. Beane Freeman relate the work practices of farmers and their families to possible occupational and environmental exposures. In fact, she often includes photos of her family members tending corn, soybeans, and cattle in her presentations.

When she arrived at Iowa State University as a college freshman, she had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. But toward the end of her undergraduate career, "I was literally paging through course catalogs for graduate school and came across the description of a department of epidemiology. A light bulb went on. The idea of being able to link people's exposures in everyday life to disease, of having a potential impact on public health, was really appealing to me."

After graduating from Iowa State, she went on to earn an M.S. in preventive medicine and a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of Iowa. Her doctoral work focused on the relationship between contaminants in drinking water and cancer risk. In 2005, Dr. Beane Freeman joined NCI's Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program. She has since found a home in OEEB, where she became a tenure-track investigator in 2009. "My colleagues are the people whose papers I was reading as a graduate student," she said. "It's amazing to me that I now work with them on a daily basis."

Laura Beane Freeman, Ph.D.The feeling is mutual. According to Michael C.R. Alavanja, Dr.P.H., a senior investigator in OEEB, "Laura is an indispensable member of the AHS team. She has a combination of outstanding research and management skills and a wonderful sense of humor."

The AHS, a collaborative effort of NCI, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency, operates in Iowa and North Carolina. During its first phase, AHS researchers recruited private pesticide applicators, farmers, and farmers' spouses and collected baseline information. During the second phase, researchers collected data through telephone interviews, cell samples from cheek swabs, and dietary questionnaires.

Now in the study's third phase, AHS researchers are collecting more follow-up data to elucidate changes in health status, farming practices, and use of pesticides since enrollment. "Farmers overall are healthier than the general population, but they have elevated risks for certain cancers. Trying to figure out why is an important question," Dr. Beane Freeman said. In November 2010, she and her AHS colleagues received an NIH Plain Language Award for The Agricultural Health Study Update 2009, a publication developed to inform members of the AHS cohort. The awards are part of an NIH-wide initiative to promote the use of plain language in all materials created for the public or within government.

Dr. Beane Freeman has led and collaborated on many studies conducted using the AHS cohort. Highlights include studies evaluating the cancer risks associated with occupational exposure to numerous pesticides, with high body mass index (BMI), and with the interactions between BMI and pesticide use. In addition, she collaborated on a study of prostate cancer that evaluated the relationship of specific pesticide use to inherited variants on chromosome 8q24, an area identified to be associated with prostate cancer risk through genome-wide association studies.

Another area of focus for Dr. Beane Freeman is the study of populations exposed to formaldehyde, a chemical that is used heavily in industrial and other occupational settings. As the principal investigator of the NCI Cohort of Workers in Formaldehyde Industries, the largest cohort study of workers exposed to formaldehyde, she has investigated the potential association of formaldehyde exposure to the risk of leukemia and other lymphohematopoietic malignancies. She and her colleagues also have carried out studies of cancer risk among funeral industry professionals, whose work includes exposure to formaldehyde. In 2010, she received an NIH Merit Award for her work on the relationship of formaldehyde exposure to cancer risk.

Dr. Beane Freeman is also studying the association of drinking water contaminants to bladder cancer risk. As a co-investigator on the New England Bladder Cancer Study, she has contributed to the development of a comprehensive arsenic exposure assessment to evaluate risks associated with bladder cancer. Dr. Beane Freeman is also leading efforts to further examine whether disinfection by-products, which are compounds formed when organic matter reacts with chemicals used to disinfect drinking water, are associated with bladder cancer.

A common theme in Dr. Beane Freeman's research is the reliance on exposure assessment. "The measurement of exposure provides the foundation for our research into occupational and environmental risk factors for cancer, so it's important to have the highest quality possible," she said.

Outside DCEG, Dr. Beane Freeman spends time with her husband and two children, ages seven and four. An avid reader, she is revisiting books from her childhood by sharing them with her kids. A recent favorite? The Chronicles of Narnia series.