Karen Sfanos

About Karen Sfanos

Determining the link between dietary carcinogens, pathogenic bacteria and IL-6 levels in prostate cancer initiation and progression

As our understanding of the complexities of human cancer deepens, it is increasingly apparent that cancer initiation and progression are multi-factorial processes. The major risk factors for the development of prostate cancer are advanced age, family history, and African-American race; however, there is also a distinct geographic distribution to prostate cancer incidence, and an apparent increase in risk with the adoption of a “Westernized” lifestyle. Therefore, there is a high probability that prostate cancer development involves environmental factors in addition to hereditary factors.

Two major environmental factors shown to have a strong linkage with prostate cancer are 1) dietary carcinogens, such as the chemical PhIP that is generated in meats cooked at very high temperatures (charbroiled) and 2) chronic infections that lead to inflammation in patients, which over time leads to the initiation of prostate cancer. Dietary carcinogens, such as PhIP, have been shown to initiate cancer in animal models, albeit relatively inefficiently. Similarly, inflammation induced by chronic infection can contribute to cancer initiation, but often requires additional co-factors such as underlying genetics or carcinogen exposure.

Dr. Sfanos proposes that the combined effects of both dietary carcinogens and tumor-promoting inflammation may lead to enhanced prostate cancer initiation and/or tumor progression, in a process mediated by the molecule IL-6 (Figure). IL-6 is a cell signaling molecule that stimulates immune response against a variety of conditions, such as infection, trauma (burns) etc. IL-6 levels are significantly elevated in several cancers such as advanced metastatic prostate cancer. Due to its elevated levels in patients with advanced prostate cancer, IL-6 has been proposed as a therapeutic target for several cancers. Dr. Sfanos proposes to study the link of IL-6 to dietary carcinogens and inflammation in promoting prostate cancer initiation and progression.


The 2012 Chris and Felicia Evensen – PCF Young Investigator Award

Karen Sfanos, PhD

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


Angelo deMarzo, MD, PhD and William Nelson, MD, PhD