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Sonja Berndt, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

NCI Shady Grove | Room 6E126



Dr. Berndt received a Pharm.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. She joined DCEG in 2003 as a predoctoral fellow, becoming a postdoctoral fellow in 2006 within the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch. In 2009, Dr. Berndt was appointed to the position of tenure-track investigator. She was awarded scientific tenure and promoted to senior investigator in March 2017. She has received several awards for her research and mentoring, including an NCI Director’s Outstanding Mentor Award, a Pamela Anne Cafritz Renal Cell Carcinoma Award, an NCI Intramural Research Award, an NCI Director’s Career Development Award, and several other awards for excellence in research.

Research Interests

Dr. Berndt’s research utilizes new analytic and bioinformatic methods in genetic and molecular epidemiology to elucidate the etiology of cancer and anthropometric traits and explores the impact of modifiable risk factors on cancer risk and mortality. She is the principal investigator for the Ghana Prostate Study, Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Prostate Cancer Progression (PCP) Study, Expanded and Trans-ancestry Lymphoid Malignancies Genome-wide Association Studies, and Prostate Cancer GWAS of Uncommon Susceptibility Loci (PEGASUS). Dr. Berndt is the co-leader of the InterLymph Consortium Genetics Working Group and the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) Body Mass Index Working Group. She serves as the principal investigator representing the PLCO Cancer Screening Trial for the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT), Prostate Cancer Association Group to Investigate Cancer Associated Alterations in the Genome (PRACTICAL), African American Prostate Cancer (AAPC), Genetics and Epidemiology of Colorectal Cancer Consortium (GECCO), and the Ghana Prostate Study for the Men of African Descent and Carcinoma of the Prostate (MADCaP) Consortium.

Lymphoid Malignancies

Genetic, environmental, and immune-related factors have been implicated in the etiology of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), but the complex etiology of this disease is not well understood. To elucidate the genetic underpinnings of common NHL subtypes, Dr. Berndt co-led a large multicenter genome-wide association study (GWAS) for NHL and discovered over 40 new independent single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with specific subtypes of NHL, more than doubling the number of identified loci for NHL and discovering a key role for apoptosis in CLL susceptibility. She is currently leading an expanded GWAS of lymphoid malignancies (LM), which has identified multiple new loci for rare and common LM, and is expanding the GWAS to include historically marginalized populations. Her research also uses next-generation sequencing and bioinformatic tools to fine-map discovered risk loci and molecular technologies to further understand potential biological mechanisms.

Prostate Cancer

Both environmental and genetic factors are thought to contribute to the risk of prostate cancer. Over the past decade, through the work of Dr. Berndt and others, substantial progress has been made in identifying genetic loci associated with the risk of prostate cancer with over 260 loci discovered to date. Dr. Berndt’s research seeks to understand the genetic architecture of prostate cancer susceptibility, explore potential effect modification by environmental and occupational risk factors, and examine how these factors may be used in risk prediction and screening for prostate cancer. Although prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, only a small proportion of men die from the disease. Understanding and predicting which men are likely to die from the disease is of clinical importance to prevent overtreatment. Dr. Berndt leads a study of prostate cancer progression within the PLCO Cancer Screening Trial, which seeks to identify environmental, lifestyle, and molecular risk factors for disease progression. She is also the principal investigator for the Ghana Prostate Study, which seeks to understand disparities in risk for men of African ancestry.

Anthropometric Traits

Although the biological mechanisms are not well understood, obesity and height are risk factors for several cancers. Both anthropometric traits have strong genetic components. Through the GIANT Consortium, Dr. Berndt and colleagues have identified hundreds of loci for height and adiposity-related traits (e.g., body mass index). This work has had a profound impact on our understanding of the genetic architecture of these traits as well as other diseases, but many questions remain. Dr. Berndt’s research seeks to further understand the genetic underpinnings of anthropometric traits and to examine the impact of adiposity on cancer risk and mortality.

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