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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

DCEG Hosts Visiting Scholar James Cerhan

March 2011 - Linkage Newsletter

by Victoria A. McCallum, M.P.H.

DCEG welcomed Dr. James R. Cerhan as a Visiting Scholar in September. Dr. Cerhan is an international leader in the fields of cancer and genetic epidemiology, with a focus on chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). He is professor and chair of the Mayo Medical School's Division of Epidemiology and co-leader for the Genetic Epidemiology and Risk Assessment Program at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dr. Cerhan obtained his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Iowa and spent time in Papua New Guinea as a research fellow with the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. He then returned to the University of Iowa, where he obtained his M.D. and a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

James CerhanDr. Cerhan's research has focused primarily on the role of environmental, lifestyle, genetic, and other potentially causative factors in the etiology of NHL and CLL as well as on factors that predict outcomes. He has partnered with DCEG and other collaborators on studies of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers as well as myeloid leukemia. Dr. Cerhan is actively involved in the InterLymph Consortium as well as the NCI Cohort Consortium, where he currently serves on the Secretariat.

His two-day visit, hosted by Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., Deputy Director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program, began with a seminar titled "Is there a role for vitamin D in non-Hodgkin lymphoma etiology or prognosis?" In his presentation, Dr. Cerhan gave an overview of clinical and epidemiologic data on vitamin D and the risk of NHL. Epidemiologic studies have suggested a reduced risk with increased exposure to sunlight, a major source of vitamin D. According to Dr. Cerhan, however, results have been mixed in studies looking at either dietary supplementation of vitamin D or circulating vitamin D levels and risk of NHL. Recently, the NCI Cohort Consortium's Vitamin D Pooling Project revealed a null association between NHL and circulating vitamin D levels.

Dr. Cerhan also discussed early results on factors affecting prognoses for NHL and CLL based on his work as co-principal investigator on the Lymphoma Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) Developmental Research Project. The SPORE project found that vitamin D deficiency in patients was associated with inferior event-free survival, lymphoma-specific survival, and overall survival for certain NHL subtypes.

Following the seminar, Shelia Hoar Zahm, Sc.D., Deputy Director of DCEG, presented Dr. Cerhan with the DCEG Visiting Scholar Award for his leadership and vision in the fields of epidemiology and public health.

During his visit, Dr. Cerhan participated in several meetings with special interest groups at DCEG. In one of these meetings, he joined Lindsay M. Morton, Ph.D., Radiation Epidemiology Branch (REB), and members of the Second Malignancy and Cancer Survival Group for a discussion on the interface of observational epidemiology and randomized trials in the assessment of cancer prognosis and other outcomes. The investigators discussed sources of data, how to upgrade study methodology to address changing questions, and ways of meeting the challenges of outcome-oriented versus exposure-oriented research.

Also during his visit, Dr. Cerhan met with Martha S. Linet, M.D., M.P.H., Chief of REB; Eric A. Engels, M.D., M.P.H., Infections and Immunoepidemiology Branch; and Mark Purdue, Ph.D., Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch, who led a meeting of the Lymphoid Malignancy Interest Group. The discussion focused on studies of lymphoid malignancies in Asia, relationships of these diseases to HIV/AIDS and other immunosuppressed populations, molecular classification, and improvements in methodology. In addition, Dr. Cerhan also joined Stephanie J. Weinstein, Ph.D., Nutritional Epidemiology Branch, and members of the Vitamin D Interest Group, who hosted a roundtable discussion on vitamin D and cancer. Discussions centered on the Vitamin D Pooling Project; a recent reanalysis of data from NHANES (the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) on serum vitamin D; and issues of study design, including the importance of using absolute values of circulating vitamin D rather than categories for making comparisons.

Dr. Cerhan also participated in an informal brown bag luncheon with DCEG tenure-track investigators and fellows, hosted by Dr. Hartge, who noted that "Dr. Cerhan has been extremely successful in guiding and mentoring young scientists to meet the challenges of research while maintaining work-life balance." Many questions were posed during the luncheon about navigating the way to scientific independence and determining a research focus; in addition, Dr. Cerhan gave some job interviewing tips.

At the end of the two-day visit, Dr. Zahm observed that "without Dr. Cerhan's leadership and collaborative spirit, the consortial studies involving DCEG would not have advanced to the level that they are at today." Dr. Cerhan thanked DCEG investigators for a stimulating exchange of ideas and hospitality and expressed a desire for continued partnerships.