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Joseph Fraumeni: A 50-Year Legacy of Cancer Research

December 2012 - Linkage Newsletter

by Victoria A. Fisher, M.P.H.

In July 2012, Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D., reached a career milestone of 50 years at NCI. He marked this anniversary by stepping down as Director of DCEG, while continuing to serve as a senior investigator and advisor at NCI and NIH.

“Throughout his 50 years at NIH, Dr. Fraumeni has distinguished himself by his creative and diligent pursuit of the causes of cancer, both genetic and environmental. He has been universally recognized for his intellectual contributions to—and inspired leadership of—the field of cancer epidemiology,” said NCI Director Harold Varmus, M.D. “Furthermore, he has almost single-handedly built the remarkable, even enviable, epidemiology division at NCI, an intramural program in which scientists continue to study the origins of cancer with tools that range from the population to the molecular level.”

Dr. Fraumeni received an undergraduate degree from Harvard College, an M.D. from Duke University, and an M.Sc. in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health. After completing a medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he joined NIH in 1962 as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). After a progression of leadership positions at NCI, Dr. Fraumeni became founding Director of DCEG in 1995, at which time he was promoted in the PHS to the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General.

Throughout his years of leadership at NIH, Dr. Fraumeni shaped and directed a comprehensive epidemiological and interdisciplinary research program designed to identify the environmental and genetic determinants of cancer and the means of prevention. A continuing focus of his personal research has been the study of genetic susceptibility to cancer, particularly by investigating familial aggregations of various cancers. Most notable was his discovery in 1969 with fellow NCI researcher Dr. Frederick P. Li of a rare, inherited syndrome manifested by a striking constellation of multiple cancers in children and young adults. This observation eventually led to collaborative molecular studies that uncovered inherited mutations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene.

Another central theme of Dr. Fraumeni’s research has been the search for lifestyle and other environmental causes of cancer. In 1975, he led the development of the first in a series of computer-generated maps depicting geographical variation of U.S. cancer mortality at the county level. This work allowed Dr. Fraumeni and his colleagues to develop a way to identify the environmental exposures driving the distinctive patterns of certain malignancies and also to target high-risk areas for measures aimed at cancer prevention and control.

Dr. Fraumeni’s recent work has centered on the integration of genomic and other emerging technologies in efforts to dissect the genetic and environmental components of cancer and their interactive effects in the origins and progression of cancer. Toward this end, Dr. Fraumeni has been a leader in developing molecular epidemiology platforms and large-scale collaborative strategies to accelerate a fuller understanding of carcinogenic risks and mechanisms that will inform new clinical and public health interventions.

In recognition of his scientific achievements, Dr. Fraumeni has received numerous honors, including the Charles S. Mott Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the Abraham Lilienfeld Award from the American College of Epidemiology, the John Snow Award from the American Public Health Association, the James D. Bruce Award from the American College of Physicians, the Nathan Davis Award from the American Medical Association, the Alton Ochsner Award from the American College of Chest Physicians, the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Cancer Research. In addition, Dr. Fraumeni has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the Association of American Physicians, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Fraumeni’s research contributions are documented in more than 860 scientific publications and books, including several editions of the definitive textbook Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, which he co-edited with Dr. David Schottenfeld of the University of Michigan. 

As an extension of his strong commitment to mentoring, Dr. Fraumeni has provided the vision to create a renowned fellowship program at NCI designed to train the next generation of scientific leaders in epidemiology, genetics, statistics, and related fields. This legacy continues through efforts of the current leadership of the Division and its Office of Education.

“The last 50 years have seen the discipline of cancer epidemiology come of age, providing the foundation for cancer prevention and control,” said Dr. Christopher P. Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. “Dr. Fraumeni has been one of the leading contributors throughout, both because of his own innovative research and through the productive environment he has created at NCI. His view of cancer is a global one. In this context, he has been a wonderful supporter and collaborator for scientists at our international agency and for so many others in countries around the world.”

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