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Reducing Cancer Burden Through Collaborative Research

February 11, 2021
by Melinda Irwin and Xiaomei Ma

More people die from cancer than from almost any other causes in the world. Yale School of Public Health researchers are working together to change that.

From key partnerships with the Yale Cancer Center (YCC) to novel research efforts across New Haven and Connecticut, as well as globally, Yale scientists have already made significant steps toward preventing and treating a wide range of cancers. Their interdisciplinary fight against cancer has enlisted some of the most prominent public health scholars in the nation and involves dozens of research teams that investigate nearly every aspect of the cancer epidemic, including risk factors and social determinants of health.

At the YCC, seven research programs collaborate with 14 disease-aligned research teams to advance science through novel clinical trials, observational studies and correlative research. One of these seven programs, the Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program, is led by Chronic Disease Epidemiology Professors Xiaomei Ma, Ph.D., and Michaela Dinan, Ph.D., with Melinda Irwin, Ph.D., M.P.H., overseeing population sciences research across the YCC. They and more than a dozen other YSPH researchers are conducting innovative and impactful cancer prevention and control research that informs policy, guides public health and clinical practice, and drives equitable care. Other YSPH faculty are actively involved in the areas of cancer microbiology, developmental therapeutics, genomics, genetics and epigenetics.

“There is real momentum,” Irwin said. “Pulling together experts from across the Yale School of Public Health and from across Yale, we are making discoveries as to what causes cancer, and how to intervene to prevent and treat cancer, especially among cancers that are increasing in Connecticut.”

Together, Yale’s initiatives play an important role in reducing cancer burden across the world. Their efforts are especially significant now. While advances in tobacco control, early detection and cancer treatment have led to a nearly 30% reduction in cancer mortality rates from their peak in the mid-1990s, numerous other factors are hampering further reductions, such as increasing rates of obesity, environmental pollutants and infections.

In the last decade, multiple large research grants known as specialized programs of research excellence, or SPOREs, have gone to Yale scientists studying melanoma and lung cancer, with YSPH Professor Shuangge Ma, Ph.D., overseeing the biostatistical and bioinformatics core. The funding has already helped to produce exciting progress. For example, a large case-control study done by YSPH Assistant Professor Leah Ferrucci, Ph.D. ’09, M.P.H. ’06, suggests that indoor tanning is strongly associated with rates of basal cell carcinoma — a significant finding that led to a policy change in Connecticut banning indoor tanning to minors, and Senior Research Scientist Brenda Cartmel, Ph.D., is leading a large lung SPORE smoking cessation trial among patients at high risk for lung cancer.

Additional collaborations among YSPH faculty happen at the Yale Cancer Outcomes, Public Policy and Effectiveness Research (COPPER) Center. Founded by Professors Cary Gross, M.D., and Xiaomei Ma, COPPER includes more than 30 YCC members working to improve cancer patient care and outcomes.

Yale researchers are eager to reduce cancer burden worldwide, with Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Biostatistics Donna Spiegelman, Sc.D., collaborating with partners around the globe to address emerging cancer disparities, but they’re also enthusiastic about helping our local community. The YCC has made substantial progress in community outreach activities and recently established the new Center for Community Engagement and Health Equity. Led by Yale School of Medicine Associate Dean for Health Equity Research Marcella Nunez-Smith, M.D., M.H.S., with additional leadership by YSPH Research Scientist Beth Jones, Ph.D. ’93, M.P.H., ’86, this organization is committed to minimizing the cancer burden in New Haven and Connecticut. Some other community-based research involves increasing HPV vaccination rates (led by YSPH Professor Linda Niccolai, Ph.D.) and examining environmental carcinogens as a risk factor for thyroid cancer in Connecticut women (led by Associate Professor Nicole Deziel, Ph.D.).

Training the next generation of cancer investigators is another important way that Yale scientists can help improve the future. YSPH professors have recently restarted a long-standing training program that aims to educate, train and mentor pre- and post-doctoral fellows in a range of strategies to prevent and control cancer. Other programs include a high school outreach initiative and a worldwide effort to train early-career investigators in transdisciplinary research in obesity, nutrition, exercise and cancer research.

Looking farther afield, cancer researchers at the YCC and YSPH are committed to building upon their accomplishments and continuing to pursue innovative, impactful cancer research, including translating our discoveries into the community, with the ultimate goal of minimizing cancer burden locally, nationally and globally.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on February 11, 2021