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Arnold School of Public Health

Jim Burch wins grants to support two new projects: circadian factors and inflammation/cancer, shiftwork and disease prevention

January 15, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Associate professor Jim Burch, a researcher in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, will apply his expertise to two new projects over the next three to five years. The first, supported with nearly $3 million from the National Cancer Institute, will examine the role of circadian factors in inflammation and colorectal adenoma risk. With funding from the National Institute of Justice, the second project will use more than $800K to study atypical work hours and adaptation among law enforcement employees.

An epidemiologist and a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program, Burch has extensive experience studying the relationship between circadian rhythms (i.e., an individual’s naturally occurring sleep-wake cycle during a 24-hour period) and cancer. As principal investigator for the R01 project, he will use a biobehavioral case-control design to determine whether the disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep is associated with inflammation or colorectal adenoma formation.

Adenomas are benign tumors that have the potential to become malignant and account for 85 to 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases. Colonoscopies can detect adenomas before they become cancerous; however, screening rates are low – despite colorectal cancer’s status as one of the most common and deadly forms of cancer in the United States. Further, Burch and others’ previous research has identified disparities in both screening and mortality rates for colorectal cancer, with African Americans disproportionately affected.

Also based on previous research, Burch and his team know that gastrointestinal inflammation and circadian rhythm disruptions intersect as risk factors for colorectal cancer.

“A pro-inflammatory diet and physical inactivity can induce chronic GI inflammation,” Burch says. “Further, sleep loss can disrupt diet and exercise, and it is associated with elevated inflammation mediators.”

However, these factors are modifiable and therefore have the potential to decrease the risk of colorectal cancer if appropriately addressed. Their goal with this study is to better understand these modifiable risk factors in order to improve colorectal cancer prevention. If his research hypotheses are supported, then strategies to improve sleep or normalize circadian rhythm disruption (e.g., using tactics employed by night workers) may help prevent the development of colorectal and possibly other forms of cancer. 

Individuals who participate in shiftwork are particularly vulnerable to circadian disruption and sleep loss. Building on previous studies, such as one that examined health factors among nurses engaged in shiftwork, this project will investigate elements commonly associated with shiftwork (e.g., poorly timed light exposures, poor sleep, excessive stress) and its adverse effects (e.g., sleep loss, fatigue, immune and endocrine dysregulation, aberrant DNA methylation) that increase the risk of colorectal and other cancers.

For his National Institute of Justice project, Burch and John Violanti, a police stress expert at the University of Buffalo (The State University of New York), will work as co-principal investigators to examine shiftwork adaptation and health in another context: law enforcement. Together, the researchers will determine whether shiftwork, overtime hours or secondary jobs predict adverse changes in metabolic, neurological, epigenetic and immune health indicators. They will also survey officers to better understand their strategies for adapting to the challenges of shiftwork, overtime, etc. Using this information, the researchers will identify beneficial and detrimental adaptation approaches among the participants in order to develop recommendations for adapting to atypical work hours and other work factors that impact those health indicators over time.

“Law enforcement personnel serve a vital role by maintaining safety and order, yet they suffer disproportionately from increased risks for cancer and other major chronic diseases,” Burch says. “Their irregular work hours can elicit stress-related pathophysiological effects so our goal with this study is to better understand the factors that predispose them to adverse health outcomes in order to develop effective disease prevention strategies for this high-risk population.”


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