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Finding Needles in Haystacks

Annual Report - Winter 2010

By Mary Jane Schier

Her molecular detective work seems like hunting for multiple needles in those proverbial haystacks.

Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D.

Yet Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., thrives on searching for genetic clues she expects will lead to earlier, more effective cancer detection and prevention strategies.

“My key question always is how can we translate the molecular information learned in the lab more quickly to the clinic,” says Wu, professor in the Department of Epidemiology in
M. D. Anderson’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences.

Wu, the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Julie and Ben Rogers Award for Excellence in Research, joined
M. D. Anderson’s faculty in 1995. Since then she has developed a widely respected research program that is helping understand the connection between genetic susceptibility and environmental factors for many types of cancer, especially those caused by tobacco use.

One major recent finding by Wu’s team was the discovery that a gene variation — the prostate stem cell antigen (PSCA) — generates a 30% to 40% higher risk for urinary bladder cancer. Scientists knew that PSCA is overexpressed in prostate cancer, but the Wu-directed study was the first to confirm its bladder cancer connection.

Wu is increasingly optimistic that her group’s ongoing genome-wide study will expedite determining who is at elevated risk for bladder cancer, the fourth most common cancer in American men. She hopes the research also will accelerate designing targeted chemopreventive measures and improve survival.

Cigarette smoking and occupational exposure to some chemicals are known risk factors for bladder cancer, but nearly one-third of those affected have an inherited genetic susceptibility. Individuals whose first-degree relatives had bladder cancer have a 50% to 100% higher risk of the disease.

Wu’s study included genome-wide screening in blood samples from 969 newly diagnosed bladder cancer patients at M. D. Anderson and 954 healthy people, followed by validation of top gene candidates in three American and nine European research groups. The cumulative results involved 6,667 bladder cancer patients and 39,590 healthy controls.

Reported in the September 2009 issue of Nature Genetics.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center