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Connecting the dots

An ambitious project, to be sure, and one that would complete the cycle of Hawkes' two decades of research studying selenium, an essential trace element thought to play a role in cancer prevention. What role selenium plays remains controversial.

Selenium - a metalloid element chemically similar to sulfur - is found naturally in soil. It's used in industry to impart red coloring to glass, to change the electrical properties of silicone in semiconductors and to increase the durability of rubber tires. Doctors use it to treat acne, eczema, and dandruff. And it can be toxic to humans, depending on how much and what kind of selenium is used.

Selenium is found in a variety of foods, including red meat, grains, eggs, liver, garlic, and brewer's yeast. The amount, however, depends on the type of soil where the foods were harvested, according to Hawkes.

"You can't easily control your selenium intake through diet alone," he said. "The only food reliably high in selenium is the Brazil nut, but that's because the soil in Venezuela, where most Brazil nuts are harvested, is high in selenium."

Some scientists - including Hawkes, who takes 200 micrograms of selenium daily - believe the element has health benefits. In 1996, the Nutritional Prevention of Cancer Study Group published a landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association linking high doses of selenium to a statistically lowered risk of cancer, especially prostate, colorectal and lung cancers


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