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Study explores race differences of lung cancer risk

Aug. 1, 2013, 10:14 AM

Vanderbilt research scientist Melinda Aldrich, Ph.D., MPH, has been awarded a National Institutes of Health Academic Career Award to investigate some of the genetic secrets behind a greater risk of lung cancer among African-Americans compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

Melinda Aldrich, Ph.D., MPH

Aldrich, assistant professor of Thoracic Surgery and Epidemiology, will study the genetic ancestry of African-Americans to identify the genetic and environmental risk factors associated with a higher incidence of lung cancer in this population.

To date, this represents the largest study of African-Americans with lung cancer.

Though smoking is certainly a well-documented risk factor for lung cancer, it does not explain the racial disparity in lung cancer risk. Therefore, Aldrich believes a genetic difference may lie at the root of the problem.

“We have known for some time that African-Americans, particularly men, have both the highest incidence and mortality rates for lung cancer, but little research has been conducted among minority populations,” said Aldrich. “By uncovering the genetic differences that might cause this increase in lung cancer, we can one day identify high-risk individuals and develop treatments that ultimately reduce its occurrence and impact.”

To accomplish this task, Aldrich will study African-Americans from two existing epidemiology studies — the African American Lung Cancer Consortium and the Southern Community Cohort Study.

This five-year research study will be the largest to examine the genetics of lung cancer in a population whose ancestry is mixed and separated by thousands of years. African-Americans have ancestry in both Africa and Europe, and genetic mapping could identify common key regions that contribute to racial differences in lung cancer incidence.

“Dr. Aldrich’s previous work identified that genetic ancestry has a significant impact on pulmonary function. Now she is undertaking a significant project that builds on her expertise in genetic ancestry,” said Joe B. (Bill) Putnam Jr., M.D., chair of Thoracic Surgery. “This project will be critical in better understanding the factors that influence lung cancer development.

“Her work will have a significant impact on our understanding of lung cancer development at the individual patient level, and is likely to provide clues for better treatment and counseling.”

For this career development award, she will be mentored by William Blot, Ph.D., professor of Medicine and principal investigator for the Southern Community Cohort Study, Pierre Massion, M.D., professor of Medicine, Cancer Research and Cancer Biology, and Scott Williams, Ph.D., professor of Genetics at Dartmouth College.

The NIH Academic Career Award provides grant support to ensure a diverse pool of highly trained scientists are available in key scientific disciplines, including biomedical, behavioral and clinical research.

Aldrich joined Vanderbilt in 2010 after completing a fellowship in Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco, where she focused on racial and ethnic differences in pulmonary function. She received her Master of Public Health in Epidemiology and Biostatistics in 2003 and her Ph.D. in Epidemiology in 2007, both from the University of California, Berkeley.

Since coming to Vanderbilt, Aldrich has been awarded a Vanderbilt Lung SPORE Career Development Award, a Vanderbilt Clinical and Translational Research Scholar Award and a Department of Defense grant.

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