December 8, 2000

Researchers probe cancer contributors

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Dr. Robert Coffey’s article about Ménétrier’s disease was published in the Dec. 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Researchers probe cancer contributors

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center has begun a new initiative, in collaboration with a private group of scientists, to probe the underlying causes and contributors to cancer.

The goal is to combine the strengths of the two institutions and use that collaboration as a platform from which to build one of the world’s strongest cancer epidemiology programs, said officials from Vanderbilt-Ingram and the Rockville, Md.-based International Epidemiology Foundation.

“We bring to the collaboration up to 10 scientists with expertise in cancer epidemiology,” said William J. Blot, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the International Epidemiology Institute, which was established by several cancer epidemiologists formerly with the National Cancer Institute. “In turn, this allows us to tap into the basic science strengths of Vanderbilt. It’s a great opportunity. By working together, we’ll be able to do a lot more than we could by ourselves.”

Epidemiology is the key scientific discipline for determining what causes cancer and other diseases in people and for developing measures aimed at prevention. “Population-based research” is a significant priority for the NCI and a major focus for Vanderbilt-Ingram as the region’s only NCI-designated center.

The research agreement between Vanderbilt-Ingram and the foundation (IEI’s non-profit arm) has led to faculty appointments of five members of IEI’s team – Blot, Joseph McLaughlin, Ph.D.; John Boice, Ph.D.; Jon Fryzek, Ph.D.; and Lisa Signorello, Ph.D. In addition, IEI faculty member Loren Lipworth, Sc.D., joined Vanderbilt’s faculty as an assistant professor in Preventive Medicine in 1998.

The partnership is also helping Vanderbilt-Ingram recruit additional epidemiologists. In July, Drs. Wei Zheng and Xiao Ou Shu joined the Vanderbilt faculty. Over the next two years, there are plans to recruit four additional senior-level epidemiologists to the program.

Zheng, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and professor of Medicine, has medical and master’s degrees from Shanghai Medical University, and his doctorate in epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University. He comes to Vanderbilt from the University of South Carolina, where he was professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Shu, associate professor of Medicine, holds a medical degree and a master’s of public health from Shanghai University and a doctorate in epidemiology from Columbia University. She joined Vanderbilt from the University of South Carolina, where she was associate professor.

The cancer epidemiology program will add to important work already under way at Vanderbilt. This includes long-term research in breast cancer development by William DuPont, Ph.D., and Dr. David Page, and work in the area of aspirin-like drugs and their link to colorectal cancer by Drs. Walter Smalley and Marie Griffin.

The new program has several projects in the works, including an ambitious effort called the Southern Community Cohort Study. This study, which is in the pilot stage, aims to build a database of 135,000 residents of the southeastern United States, 90,000 of them African-American. The goal is to answer questions about the causes of cancer and other diseases and to assess reasons for geographic and racial/ethnic differences in cancer rates.

This study is a collaboration between Vanderbilt-Ingram, Meharry Medical College and IEI. It will be the largest-ever study of racial disparities in cancer incidence and mortality and will provide a platform for expanded collaboration between Vanderbilt and Meharry.

Dr. John Maupin, Meharry’s president and a member of Vanderbilt-Ingram’s Board of Overseers, told the board at its recent fall meeting that he is proud that Meharry is involved in the potentially landmark project. “This is one of the most exciting endeavors that Meharry has had opportunity to be a part of,” he said. Another major focus for the cancer epidemiology program will be a close examination, using a unique Scandinavian database, of the relationship between non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and the development of lung, gastrointestinal and other cancers.

Other projects include a study of pregnancy outcomes among survivors of childhood cancer, case-control studies of kidney and breast cancer, and cancer incidence following occupational exposure to toxins.