Profile: Melissa Bondy, Ph.D.
Conquest - Spring 2007
By Mary Jane Schier
Becoming a detective wasn’t on her list of career choices as a child growing up in Pennsylvania, but today Melissa Bondy, Ph.D., is widely admired as a modern Sherlock Holmes in the expanding field of epidemiology research.
“I think being an epidemiologist is a lot like being a detective,” says Bondy, professor in the Department of Epidemiology at M. D. Anderson, “and I can’t imagine doing anything more fascinating or rewarding.”
The age-old mystery that challenges her investigative instincts and organizational skills focuses on who develops cancer and why.
Since joining the M. D. Anderson faculty in 1990, Bondy has conducted research aimed at understanding genetic susceptibility and other risk factors associated predominantly with brain tumors and breast cancer. She also has inspired two pioneering collaborative programs that combine the expertise from several other institutions.
The first program is the Childhood Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Center, a partnership formed in 2000 that links researchers at Houston’s M. D. Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. Bondy, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor, directs the center.
A few months ago, her vision for an international consortium was realized when the National Cancer Institute awarded M. D. Anderson an $11 million grant to lead the largest genetic study ever attempted on the causes and risk factors of primary adult and pediatric brain tumors known as gliomas. Bondy is principal investigator on the grant for the 15-institution consortium organized for the Gliogene study.
“Primary brain tumors are relatively rare. Because so few researchers are studying brain tumor development, the collaboration of scientists from multiple institutions is very important ... and the progress we make working together can be translated into significant results much more rapidly,” Bondy explains.
A pivotal decision
Bondy’s desire to help make a difference in the global crusade against cancer evolved over more than a decade.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, she saw the impact of poverty and lack of health care while volunteering for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Then she did grassroots epidemiology as an intern on a project that confirmed aircraft mechanics had a higher incidence of brain tumors. That knowledge and a subsequent study in which she evaluated environmental exposures in an area with high brain tumor incidence led to her master’s in epidemiology from The University of Texas School of Public Health.
Bondy believes that coming to M. D. Anderson in 1984 to work for Louise C. Strong, M.D., “was a pivotal decision.” Now a professor of clinical cancer genetics, Strong already was at the forefront of research involving generations of families with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a rare condition in which members develop multiple primary tumors, including brain tumors, and early onset of cancer.
“During the next few years, I identified about 250 children with brain tumors. That was meticulous detective work, going through tons of records and calling hundreds of relatives to get families’ medical backgrounds,” recalls Bondy, who used those findings to earn her Ph.D. in epidemiology from the UT School of Public Health in 1990.
When she joined the M. D. Anderson faculty, Bondy began working with researchers who were analyzing genetic susceptibility and environmental determinants in breast, lung and colorectal cancers as well as brain tumors. Associates appreciated her tenacity in tackling tough projects and her infectious team spirit. She quickly became a major contributor to epidemiologic studies in the Rio Grande Valley, Egypt and the Middle East.
Margaret R. Spitz, M.D., chair of M. D. Anderson’s Department of Epidemiology, says Bondy “constantly generates new ideas and approaches” that have resulted in accelerated genetic epidemiological research involving many institutions.
In 2000, Bondy received a Faculty Scholar Award, and in 2001 she won the Julie and Ben Rogers Award for Excellence in Cancer Prevention. Both honors recognized her collaborative research, contributions as a mentor for a wide range of students and leadership in establishing the Childhood Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Center.
“By combining the research expertise of M. D. Anderson with Baylor and Texas Children’s, we can improve our understanding of the causes of childhood cancer, identify the best strategies for prevention and share this information with health care professionals around the world. The center’s goal is to apply what we learn through research to develop cancer screening and detection methods for children similar to those for many cancers that affect adults,” Bondy says.
An ideal leader
Bondy’s bridge-building skills convinced 15 centers in five countries to participate in her proposed international consortium to identify genetic predictors of primary brain tumors. At a time when so many research requests are approved but unfunded, NCI awarded an $11 million grant to M. D. Anderson to launch the historic collaboration.
The Gliogene study aims to screen 15,000 individuals from at least 400 families who have had two biologically related members diagnosed with primary brain tumors. Study participants will provide their family medical history during either a personal or telephone interview and complete a risk questionnaire. Some individuals will be asked to provide blood samples that will help identify possible genes related to the development of gliomas.
“By collecting family histories and blood samples, we’ll gain a better understanding of the hereditary factors of this rare disease,” Bondy says.
In addition to the five-year NCI grant, the American Brain Tumor Association is supporting the genetic analysis of blood samples. This analysis for samples in the United States will be conducted by Ching C. Lau, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Pediatric Oncology Program in the Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center at Baylor and director of the Cancer Genomics Laboratory at Texas Children’s Cancer Center. The analysis of other samples will be done at the Institute of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom.
American centers joining M. D. Anderson and Baylor/Texas Children’s in the consortium include Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, Duke University, Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic Rochester, University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Researchers from Gertner Institute in Israel, the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark, the Institute of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom and Umea University Hospital in Sweden also are contributing.
In collaboration with Bondy, Ching C. Lau, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Cancer Genomics Laboratory at Texas Children’s Hospital, will be analyzing blood samples collected for the Gliogene study.
“Studying rare and highly fatal cancer sites is very difficult. Collaboration is the only fruitful way to see considerable progress in this field. We’ll continue to recruit other European centers to broaden the reach and impact of the Gliogene study,” notes Beatrice Malmer, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at Umea University Hospital and coordinating principal investigator of the non-American collaborators.
Bondy’s colleagues call her the ideal consortium leader. She was a founding member of the International Genetic Epidemiology Society and is nearing the end of a two-year term as president of the American Society for Preventive Oncology. She also is often asked to evaluate other institutions’ epidemiological research programs.
A shared commitment
Like many people, Bondy has been motivated by losing family members to cancer. Her maternal grandmother died from a brain tumor, and both her parents died from other cancer types.
“My fervent hope is that our collaborative efforts will pay off through better cancer prevention for future generations,” Bondy says. “I’m very lucky to be working with such a dedicated staff at M. D. Anderson and with so many other talented researchers who share this commitment.”
Conquest - Spring 2007
Download pdf version of Spring 2007