Director of New Center Looks for Foods That Protect Health

Texas A&M Health Science Center

Roderick H. Dashwood
December 02, 2013

Roderick H. Dashwood has spent years looking at ways beneficial compounds in food could help prevent certain forms of cancer, and thinking about how to take those compounds from farm fields to the clinic.

When Texas A&M University offered him a $9-million grant in September to build a new Center for Epigenetics & Disease Prevention, "it offered all the unique resources to make this concept a reality," he says. Mr. Dashwood moved this fall from Oregon State University, where he directed the Cancer Chemoprotection Program at the Linus Pauling Institute.

He is bringing with him an $8.5-million "multi-investigator" grant from the National Cancer Institute, along with about a half-dozen researchers.

The new center will be part of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology at the university's Health Science Center. It will link the Health Science Center, in Houston, with some of the university's agricultural and nutrition centers in College Station.

Straddling those worlds, with appointments on both campuses, is Mr. Dashwood. He is an expert in diet, cancer prevention, and epigenetics, a relatively young and rapidly growing field that investigates changes in gene behavior caused by mechanisms other than changes in DNA sequence.

While the Texas Medical Center, where the Health Science Center is located, is a world leader in treating people with cancer, "we're trying to shift the pendulum a little bit in Houston more toward what I consider true chemoprevention—acting at the very early stages of the disease, long before one would see a tumor or even a precancerous lesion developing," says Mr. Dashwood, who is 52.

The epigenetics center's initial focus will be on preventing or treating cancer at its earliest stages. Future research will most likely examine the role epigenetics may play in a host of ailments, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, and neurological and mood disorders.

An interdisciplinary team Mr. Dashwood is building will identify naturally occurring plant compounds in fruits and vegetables, called phytochemicals, that are believed to inhibit disease or improve health. The compounds will be screened by robots and tested in mice before being formulated into pills and used in human clinical trials.

During a visit this past spring to deliver a seminar at the Houston medical campus, Mr. Dashwood mentioned his interest in the "field to clinic" concept.

"Once those words were out of his mouth, we immediately realized that's exactly what would happen if we brought him here," says Cheryl L. Walker, director of the biosciences institute, which helps scientists transfer laboratory discoveries to the marketplace. "By recruiting him to build the program, we could bridge the university's strengths in agriculture, genetics, nutrition, and chemistry with the incredible clinical infrastructure here at the Texas Medical Center," she says.

Mr. Dashwood's interest in health-saving benefits of food evolved, ironically, from a childhood fascination with poison.

"My mother was a huge fan of Agatha Christie," says Mr. Dashwood, who grew up and was educated in England. "Hearing her talk, it fascinated me how the great sleuth Poirot could tell that someone had been killed by cyanide poisoning." While his high-school biology teacher was lecturing about the normal way the heart and lung functioned, "I was more interested in how things caused normal biology to go wrong."

He went on to study how environmental toxins in food can damage DNA, an interest that would later flip to looking at how beneficial compounds in foods can block DNA damage.

"Historically, cancer research has focused on the genetic changes—the changes in the DNA sequence itself," Mr. Dashwood says. "Although we still think that's very important, the problem is if you have that genetic damage or altered sequence in your DNA, it's pretty much fixed there. The exciting thing about epigenetics is that these changes are, at least in principle, reversible." His new job, he hopes, will help him find the right dietary and lifestyle changes to make that reversal happen.