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Rogers Award Lauds Wu for Cutting-Edge Research

By Sarah Watson

The words “visionary” and “revolutionary” have been used to describe the work of Xifeng Wu, M.D., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at M. D. Anderson.

Recipient of the 2008 Julie and Ben Rogers Award for Excellence in Research, Wu has created a molecular epidemiology research program that bridges epidemiology, statistics, laboratory study and clinical research. With a focus on identifying cancer risk factors as well as markers that can predict an individual’s response to treatment, her research is essential in the quest to develop personalized cancer therapies and to improve prevention efforts.

“These models may help clinicians identify patients who are most and least likely to benefit from treatments, as well as those most likely to develop toxic reactions,” she says.

Wu is the principal investigator on nine epidemiological studies funded by the National Institutes of Health. She is a collaborative investigator on many other NIH-funded grants, including a recent multi-institutional study of bladder cancer, which she directed.

“I see these integrative projects as the best way to translate science into medicine,” she says. “They’re only possible through close teamwork within a large multidisciplinary group of scientists.”

Though Wu began her medical education in China, she has spent all of her academic career at M. D. Anderson. She received her medical degree from Shanghai Medical University in 1984 and her Ph.D. in epidemiology from The University of Texas School of Public Health in 1994. She joined M. D. Anderson in 1995 as an assistant professor and by 2004 was a full professor. She held an Ashbel Smith Professorship from 2006 to 2008. She holds the Betty B. Marcus Chair in Cancer Prevention at M. D. Anderson and also is on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Wu is internationally recognized for her pioneering work in genetic cancer susceptibility markers and germline genetic variations. One of her major interests is pharmacogenetics, a new field that identifies genetic variations that can help determine why some patients respond better than others to therapeutic drugs.

Somehow Wu also finds time to lead a multidisciplinary team of 35 people.

“Mentoring trainees and junior faculty members is a responsibility and a privilege,” she says. “They are the future of science and discovery, and I take great pride in their every success. To me, their success is my success. It is my dream that they will cherish the institution’s core values of caring, integrity and discovery as I do and spread them all over the world when they become independent investigators.”

Women Reveal Roads to Success in M. D. Anderson Book

DeDe DeStefano

The women featured in “Legends and Legacies” left their white lab coats behind for this photograph that graces the center of the book. Photo by John Smallwood 

Photo illustration by Kelley Moore

Describing with sincerity and emotion the struggles and triumphs that have marked their paths to distinguished careers in their fields, 26 of M. D. Anderson’s most accomplished women hope to inspire others with a new book, “Legends and Legacies: Personal Journeys of Women Physicians and Scientists at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.”

The recently released hardcover compiles autobiographical essays edited by Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., associate vice president for Women Faculty Programs, and is available at M. D. Anderson gift shops and selected Houston bookstores (see Web site).

The 231-page book features a foreword by John Mendelsohn, M.D., president of M. D. Anderson, and an epilogue by Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., provost and executive vice president.

Developing the book has been “a joy,” says Travis.

“While the authors chronicle their own unique experiences, collectively their stories provide an illuminating perspective on many of the career and family life choices and challenges that other aspiring women inevitably will encounter,” she says. “We hope the book entertains and motivates readers.” See a video here.

Ambassadors ‘Experience’ M. D. Anderson

Nancy G. Brinker, U.S. chief of protocol under President George W. Bush, brought almost 40 ambassadors and their spouses to M. D. Anderson in mid-January as part of Experience America, a program she created to transcend involvement of the diplomatic community beyond traditional Washington circles.

Experience America highlights communities around the nation and offers diplomats an opportunity to connect with private sector organizations, not-for-profit organizations, academia and state and local government officials.

The ambassadors’ program at M. D. Anderson included presentations by John Mendelsohn, M.D., president of M. D. Anderson; Garth Powis, D.Phil., director of the Center for Targeted Therapy and chair of the Department of Experimental Therapeutics; and Margaret Spitz, M.D., professor in the Department of Epidemiology. The delegates toured M. D. Anderson’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center and the International Center to learn about M. D. Anderson’s multidisciplinary care, research programs and international outreach. They also saw the institution’s Behavioral Sciences Center and heard about M. D. Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program designed to blend evidence-based complementary therapies with medical treatment.

“The Experience America tour enhances our relations with the diplomatic community and creates an environment of hospitality and good will that contributes in a unique and meaningful way to the conduct of diplomacy,” said Brinker.

The trip was bittersweet for Brinker, whose sister, Susan, was treated at M. D. Anderson before she succumbed to breast cancer in 1980. Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure in her honor. Today, the foundation is recognized as the nation’s leading catalyst in the fight against breast cancer, with more than 100,000 volunteers working through a network of 125 U.S. and international affiliates.

Brinker also founded the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s signature program, Race for the Cure®, the largest series of 5K run/fitness walks in the world. Since its 1983 origin in Dallas, the program has grown from one local race with 800 participants to a national series of 112 races with more than 1 million participants.

Spitz Named to Hall of Fame

By Robin Davidson

For her research in cancer prevention and efforts to encourage women in science, Margaret Spitz, M.D., professor of epidemiology, is one of eight women named to the inaugural Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame.

“Our women faculty are superb scientists, dedicated mentors and inspirational role models for fellows and trainees,” says Spitz, who retired in 2008 as founding chair of the Department of Epidemiology at M. D. Anderson. “To be recognized for promoting their advancement in the field honors their contributions as much as mine.”

Research led by Spitz focuses on how individual genetic makeup affects susceptibility to tobacco carcinogens. She currently is special adviser to Ernest T. Hawk, M.D., vice president for prevention and head of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences.

In 2004, Spitz was the first woman in The University of Texas System selected for the Olga Keith Wiess Distinguished University Chair for Cancer Research. In 1991, she was the first recipient of the Julie and Ben Rogers Award for Excellence in the area of cancer prevention.

SPOTLIGHT: Jim Chastain

By Bayan Raji

It takes an optimist to laugh during the worst moments of illness. While his experience with cancer has been serious, author Jim Chastain of Norman, Okla., has used it to make people laugh.

“You really have to live it to be able to explain it well,” he says.

Diagnosed in 2001 with malignant fibrous hystiocytoma, a soft tissue sarcoma, Chastain writes about the highly specialized care he receives at M. D. Anderson.

His book, “I Survived Cancer, but Never Won the Tour de France” (Hawk Publishing Group, 2006) is for “the common guy” with cancer. Chastain says he wrote the book, a collection of essays and poetry, to tell people what it’s like to live through cancer.

“I think that for everybody cancer is a very lonely thing, even if you have a great group of people around you,” says Chastain.

It seems even a little reassurance, through books like Chastain’s, can help alleviate that loneliness. Chastain says people often write to him about the book and reveal their own or a loved one’s struggle with cancer.

The humorous aspects of the book allow him to delve into more somber issues to “help people understand what the bad days truly look like.” “When I make people laugh, it kind of gives me permission to go further and tell people the darker side,” he says. “I really wanted it to be an honest book.”

Chastain says he never imagined himself as a cancer spokesman, but the story was too important to remain untold.

“It became clear to me that it was meant for me to make sense of cancer,” he says.

“Poetry is how I process life,” says Chastain. “Sometimes, when dark things are happening all around you, it helps to write about them. It reduces part of the stress. And if you write with an audience in mind and later share the poems, you can have that wonderful experience of connecting with someone who has had similar experiences.”

Chastain posts his poetry, music, blog entries and more at www.jimchastain.com.

Spring 2009 Contents


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center