As a post-doctoral trainee on the EHSC training grant, Dr. Abby Benninghoff studied the impact of environmental estrogens on liver cancer while learning the tricks of the academic trade.
Dr. Abby Benninghoff was on a mission. After completing her doctoral degree at the University of Texas, she knew she wanted to gain experience in both toxicology and using fish models to do research relevant to human health. She found the perfect match in the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center, which has since been merged with the Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC). An additional attraction was the EHSC’s post-doctoral training grant that would provide not only financial support to get her research up and running but also included mentoring by senior scientists to help her secure her own grants to further fund her research. So Benninghoff came to OSU to examine liver cancer in trout models under the guidance of Dr. Dave Williams, an EHSC Investigator.
Benninghoff’s research focused on environmental estrogens and their interaction with liver cells of rainbow trout. To do this, she used a custom DNA microarray and looked at thousands of genes. She found a pattern involving approximately 25 genes in liver cells that created a fingerprint of sorts, indicating that cells had been exposed to estrogen or estrogen-like compounds. Based on those findings, Benninghoff looked at the effects of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) through funding by an EHSC pilot project. She found that certain PFAAs did enhance liver cancer in rainbow trout by mimicking the action of natural estrogens.
What does this mean for humans? Some cancers such as breast cancer are positively influenced by estrogen, meaning they grown when exposed to estrogen or estrogen-like compounds. There is also some data that suggests that other cancers, such as liver cancer, may respond in a similar way. Although rainbow trout do not have mammary tissue for studying breast cancers, in regard to PFAAs, their body chemistry is more similar to humans than mice or rats and are better models for liver cancers than rodents.
PFAAs include the compound perfluorooctonic acid (PFOA) or C8, which is used in many consumer products including non-stick and stain-resistant products. It is practically everywhere in the environment, including our bodies, and does not break down easily. And as shown by Benninghoff’s research, PFOA mimics the action of estrogen, so it’s a possible health concern for human health.
Since she was 4 years old, Benninghoff has wanted to be a scientist. She credits this to her father, an engineer who sparked her interest in science and math, and a high school science teacher, who introduced her the fascinating world of biology. The support from her mentor Dave Williams has also been equally motivating and inspiring. Benninghoff says that the guidance and feedback she received from Williams, fellow post-docs, and junior faculty at OSU have enabled her to successfully acquire grant funding and launch her academic career.
In the next phase of her science career, Benninghoff will continue her research on environmental estrogens at Utah State University as an assistant professor in the Animal Dairy and Veterinary Sciences Department. She also plans to pursue research involving other cancer sites such as the lung and take a closer look at how chemicals in our diet might help prevent cancer, especially during sensitive life stages like the developing fetus.
A word of advice that Benninghoff offers to other young scientists pursuing similar career tracks: Persistence. Despite these challenging economic times and fierce competition for grants, she says it’s important to be persistent, a lesson she has learned throughout her five years in the EHSC. “If you give up, nothing’s ever going to happen. You have to keep at it over and over again.” She applies this approach to her pursuit of research funding and the tenacious manner in which she does her research. It’s clear that it has paid off.