Why collect 32K toenails?

They may be unappealing to some and not an obvious source of scientific data, but researchers are hoping a record-setting collection of 32,000 toenails will shed light on the most common form of cancer in Canadian men.

Scientists in the Maritimes and B.C. are examining toenail clippings from about 150 men with prostate cancer and comparing them to the nails of men without the disease.

"We're going to use toenail samples as an indicator of risk factors specifically related to environmental exposure to heavy metals in development of prostate cancer," Dr. Jong Sung Kim of Dalhousie University in Halifax told Global News.

He said they're trying to detect cadmium and arsenic, since nails are said to be good biological materials to examine them in.

"All of us get some exposure to these metals in day-to-day life through food, soil, water but also through work," said Dr. Anil Adidesh of Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick in Saint John. "Quite often, work exposures are some of the more significant exposures people can get."

Researchers say they're hoping to build on an earlier Italian study indicating an increased risk of prostate cancer from cadmium exposure.

The work is a collaboration between researchers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, with the two-year project is being funded by Prostate Cancer Canada and the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation.

"We'll be in a better position to give advice on environmental exposures," said Adidesh. "Whether they may need reductions and what people can do to avoid unnecessary exposure."

Prostate cancer affects about one in eight men during their lifetime.

The research is expected to take place over the next two years.

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