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Behavioral scientist models healthy lifestyle

Annual Report - Winter 2013


By Katrina Burton

A modest serving of peanut butter on whole grain toast, a ripe pear and a tall glass of skim milk is the breakfast of champions.

At least, it is for cancer prevention expert Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science. These good eating habits, paired with walking, tackling the elliptical machine when time allows and reducing her sitting time, help balance her life.

Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D.
Photo: Wyatt McSpadden

“A healthy diet, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial to lowering your risk for developing cancer,” Basen-Engquist says.

She speaks from experience as the lead investigator and collaborator on several research studies and clinical trials surrounding diet and exercise. Her passion for helping others has led to her recent appointment as director of a new energy-balance center, funded by MD Anderson and its Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment.

“The center will allow us to examine the effect of exercise and weight management interventions on biomarkers of cancer prognosis and recurrence,” she says.

She hopes that interventions developed under the new center will eventually be used as models for lifestyle behavior change to prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.

Drug, lifestyle changes may make a difference


By Katrina Burton

Taking the road less traveled to lower the risk of endometrial cancer is a challenge that MD Anderson researchers Karen Lu, M.D., and Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., are ready to take on. Endometrial cancer, the fourth most common cancer in women in the United States, and the most common gynecologic cancer, is primarily linked to obesity.

“We’re seeing an increase in this type of cancer as the number of obese women increases,” says Lu, professor and chair of MD Anderson’s Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. “We need to stop the rising incidence of this disease and that starts with addressing the obesity problem.”

With support from the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment, Basen-Engquist, professor in the Department of Behavioral Science, focuses on diet and physical activity and how they relate to outcomes for people with cancer and those at risk for cancer. She teamed up with Lu on a new clinical trial that combines the diabetes prevention drug, metformin, and a lifestyle intervention.

“We’re looking to see if a diet-and-exercise intervention combined with metformin will reduce the risk of women developing this type of cancer,” Basen-Engquist says. “We already know being obese and physically inactive increase the risk of some cancers.”

Project LEAP (Lowering risk of Endometrial cancer through Activity, nutrition and Preventive medicines) targets non-diabetic menopausal women with a body mass index of 35 or greater.

“This is a unique study because we’re not just looking at a drug, but also lifestyle,” Lu says. “We hope the trial will show there’s synergy between both metformin and the lifestyle.”

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