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Reflections on Joseph Fraumeni’s Legacy of Cancer Research


Read: A conversation with Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr. - interviewed by Robert N. Hoover
From the VOICES project of Epidemiology, November 2013

Watch: Cancer epidemiology over the last half-century and thoughts on the future
A panel discussion with Dr. David Schottenfeld

Read: Special Linkage newsletter issue honoring Joseph Fraumeni
Articles highlighting Dr. Fraumeni's 50 years of cancer epidemiology research, December 2012

Symposium Celebrates Joseph Fraumeni’s 50 Years of Visionary Leadership

In May, cancer researchers from across the country and around the globe gathered with colleagues from NIH for a scientific symposium to celebrate 50 years of visionary leadership by Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D., founding Director of DCEG.

Nearly 350 scientists attended the symposium, titled “Cancer Epidemiology: From Pedigrees to Populations,” which focused on a selection of some of the major scientific themes that flourished and expanded out of Dr. Fraumeni’s groundbreaking research into cancer etiology and prevention. In addition, many of Dr. Fraumeni’s closest friends and family were present at the event.

Dr. Fraumeni stepped down as DCEG Director in July 2012, but continues to serve as a senior investigator and advisor at NCI and NIH. Prior to the symposium, NCI Director Harold E. Varmus, M.D., honored Dr. Fraumeni by revealing a commemorative plaque formally designating Shady Grove Room TE-406 as the “Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D. Conference Room.”

Stephen J. Chanock, M.D., Director of DCEG, provided opening remarks and welcomed symposium speakers, honored guests, and attendees. He gave an overview of Dr. Fraumeni’s legacy and impact on the cancer research community.

“Over the past 50 years, cancer research has benefited from Joe seizing opportunities to bring about so many remarkable discoveries,” Dr. Chanock said. “His career truly exemplifies what Louis Pasteur remarked: 'In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind'. We are fortunate that he continues to be an essential contributor to DCEG, offering an extraordinary intellect, and more importantly, wisdom for our Division and the field of cancer epidemiology.”

The symposium was organized into three major sessions, during which Dr. Fraumeni’s colleagues and collaborators highlighted critical findings made over the past 50 years. The speakers also discussed opportunities for future research with the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the causes of cancer. In addition, speakers shared their personal stories about Dr. Fraumeni, all noting his support for scientific collaboration, generosity with his time, and wise counsel.

The first session, “Search for Cancer Susceptibility Genes,” was moderated by Dr. David Schottenfeld, University of Michigan. Drs. Schottenfeld and Fraumeni have co-edited several editions of the definitive textbook, Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. The first speaker, Dr. Louise C. Strong, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, recounted Dr. Fraumeni’s discovery in 1969 with fellow NCI researcher Dr. Frederick P. Li of a rare, inherited, multicancer syndrome. The syndrome, which manifested by a striking constellation of multiple cancers in children and young adults, is now known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Dr. David Malkin, The Hospital for Sick Children, described how this observation eventually led to collaborative molecular studies that uncovered inherited mutations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene. Sharon A. Savage, M.D., Chief of the Clinical Genetics Branch, examined how Dr. Fraumeni’s early family studies laid the groundwork for current studies of cancer etiology and telomere biology. Dr. Kenneth Offit, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, discussed how germline cancer genetics informs tumor genetics and current generation approaches to understanding cancer susceptibility syndromes.

The second session, “High-risk Populations and Insights into Carcinogenic Mechanisms,” was moderated by Dr. Margaret R. Spitz, Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Spitz also serves as a special advisor to DCEG. During this session, Eric A. Engels, M.D., M.P.H., offered a review of past and current research on transplant-associated immunosuppression and cancer, including Dr. Fraumeni’s early epidemiologic studies of cancer in transplant recipients. Robert N. Hoover, M.D., Sc.D., Director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program, discussed hormonal carcinogenesis across the life course, particularly focusing on early-life events that might initiate carcinogenesis.

The final section session, “Global Health: Opportunities for Epidemiologic Research,” was moderated by Dr. Brian E. Henderson, University of Southern California, whose friendship with Dr. Fraumeni dates back to their collaboration on epidemiologic studies in China in the 1980s. Starting the session, Dr. William J. Blot, International Epidemiology Institute & Vanderbilt University, and a former Branch Chief at NCI, described Dr. Fraumeni’s role in developing the first U.S. cancer maps, which were soon followed by similar atlases from other countries. The maps identified geographic cancer hot spots and allowed Dr. Fraumeni and his colleagues to identify environmental exposures driving the distinctive patterns of certain malignancies and also to target high-risk regions for cancer prevention and control measures. Nathaniel Rothman, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.S., reviewed the Division’s long history of epidemiologic research on lung cancer and indoor air pollution in China. Finally, Christian C. Abnet, Ph.D., M.P.H., discussed Dr. Fraumeni’s legacy of interventional and etiologic studies of esophageal and gastric cancer, as well as current research in China, Brazil, and Iran.

The symposium concluded with statements by Dr. Michael Thun, American Cancer Society, and Michael Gottesman, M.D., NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research. In addition, Dr. Varmus offered final remarks on Dr. Fraumeni’s remarkable 50-year legacy in the field of cancer epidemiology.

“Epidemiology is connected to everything,” Dr. Varmus said. “We heard today about clinical science, about global health, about environmental health, about mechanisms of disease, about counting what's there so [we] can study it…Almost all provocative questions begin with some epidemiological observation. I want to thank all of you for coming today to celebrate not only Joe as an NIH hero, but epidemiology as a remarkable underpinning and cohesive effort throughout the realm of cancer research.”

The agenda from the symposium can be viewed online.