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U. of Colorado team solves mystery of carcinogenic mothballs

June 20, 2006 Chemical compounds in household products like mothballs and air fresheners can cause cancer by blocking the normal process of "cell suicide" in living organisms, according to a new study spearheaded by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Naphthalene in mothballs and para-dichlorobenzene, or PDCB, found in some air fresheners, were shown to block enzymes that initiate programmed cell death, or apoptosis, said Associate Professor Ding Xue of CU-Boulder's molecular, cellular and developmental biology department. Apoptosis is a normal function of certain cell groups that acts as a "brake" to prevent unchecked cellular proliferation similar to the process that triggers the formation of cancerous tumors, said Xue.

While naphthalene and PDCB have been shown to cause cancer in rodents and are classified by the National Toxicology Program and the International Association for Research on Carcinogens as potential human carcinogens, their biochemistry has not been well understood, said Xue. But using a common, eyelash-sized worm known as C. elegans, the research team has shown that naphthalene can cause the inactivation of a group of enzymes known as caspases -- which control cell suicide -- by oxidizing them.

The study appears in the June issue of Nature Chemical Biology. It was authored by Xue and David Kokel of CU-Boulder's MCD biology department and Yehua Li and Jun Qin of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"This study shows why mothballs and some air freshener products may be harmful to humans," said Xue. "And, for the first time, we have developed a systematic way to screen virtually any potential cancer-causing chemical that may affect humans using these nematodes as animal models."

In the study, caspase enzymes from both nematodes and from humans were blocked after exposure to naphthalene, indicating a "comparable pharmacology" between worms and humans, said Xue.

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Contact: Ding Xue
ding.xue@colorado.edu
303-492-0271
University of Colorado at Boulder
20-Jun-2006


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