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Doctoral Dissertation Research: History of Aflatoxin and Liver Cancer


Doctoral Dissertation Research: A History of Aflatoxin and Liver Cancer <br/><br/><br/><br/>Cancer has emerged as a key object of biomedical research, clinical care, public health, and regulation in the last half of the 20th century. Aflatoxins are a class of mycotoxins, toxic chemicals produced by fungi that often grow on crops. Aflatoxins cause up to 172,000 cases of lethal liver cancer globally per year. This research project will study the production of knowledge about liver cancer and aflatoxin, as well as its causes and prevention by tracing the history of aflatoxins since the early 1960s when it was discovered by veterinarians as being responsible for the widespread death of poultry. The discovery of aflatoxins lead to studies asking if there was a causal link between aflatoxin and liver cancer in humans. In the 1970s, regulators had begun introducing thresholds for aflatoxin in food and feed and for prescribing standardized tests to determine aflatoxin contamination. Plant scientists began to study and identify the conditions of aflatoxin development in crops in order to prevent the occurrence in humans and livestock. This project will focus on how aflatoxin became a health problem, how different scientific disciplines, institutions, and research practices have interacted to produce knowledge about cancer, and how this knowledge shaped regulation and public health interventions. The findings will be used to guide policy targeting health safety and agriculture standards.<br/><br/><br/>This project contributes to the historical literature on science because biomedical understandings of the relation between aflatoxins and liver cancer has grown more complex, as scientists have studied the synergistic influences of genes, hepatitis virus infections, and aflatoxins on the carcinogenesis of liver cancer with methods of molecular epidemiology and tumor genome sequencing. The results of the research will be of interest to historians of science and scholars of development, regulation, and science policy. The research will be done in archives where scientific records of national and international health organizations are housed. The project will also complete oral histories to document how the disciplines of toxicology, epidemiology, veterinary medicine, and plant sciences have interacted to produce knowledge about cancer and aflatoxins. The project will explore the relationship of laboratory and field by studying how regulatory regimes and scientific knowledge have influenced each other since the early 1960s. In addition the project will map out the research networks formed by scientists to understand how different scales, disciplines, and settings of research and regulation interacted to produce knowledge about cancer and aflatoxins. The project will show how research interactions, practices and approaches changed as the Cold War ended and genetics gained an increasing importance in the life sciences. A historical understanding of the interaction of regulatory regimes and knowledge-making will help to develop more effective policies.

Schauer, David; Mueller, Lucas
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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