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October 23, 2006

U-M program trains students to study cancer in international, minority populations

Studying cancer rates outside U.S. offers environmental, genetic clues
Researchers awarded $1.2 million training grant for cancer epidemiology

ANN ARBOR, MI – By studying cancer in ethnically diverse settings, researchers learn important clues about genetic and environmental factors that play a role in this disease. But few cancer researchers have the expertise to look at these populations.

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Molly Hartrich in the Pediatric ward at Ocean Road Cancer Institute, Tanzania

The University of Michigan School of Public Health has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to train public health students in cancer epidemiology research in special populations. The school will work with the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the program will focus on 15 countries in Asia, Africa and South America, as well as minority populations in the United States.

This program will be a major component in the School of Public Health's new Center for Global Health.  

“Developing countries, with their unique contrasts in lifestyles and environmental exposures, provide an incomparable and often neglected opportunity for studying how cancer develops,” says program director Amr Soliman, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health and a member of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The new program will work with researchers in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan and Hong Kong. Domestic projects will focus on African-Americans, migrant workers, Hispanics and Arab-Americans.

By understanding cancer trends in international populations, researchers can apply that knowledge to minority populations in the United States.

Studying cancer in foreign populations could lead researchers to a new genetic pathway that could in turn lead to a targeted treatment. Or they could spot an environmental factor that plays a role in cancer development. International cancer research has also helped shape disease prevention. For example, research on hepatitis B in Taiwan revealed an association between the viral infection and liver cancer, leading to recommendations of the hepatitis B vaccine for all American children.

University of Michigan team (Drs. Amr Soliman and Sofia Merajver) at NCI-Cairo with the team supervising Angela's project (Drs. Hussein Khaled, Rabab Gaafar, and Saad Eissa)

“Unfortunately, cancer research is much more difficult to conduct in the developing countries because of the lack of population-based registries, poor communication and transportation systems, and a limited number of trained cancer researchers. These difficulties could be overcome with improved collaboration in cancer research between the developing and industrialized nations,” Soliman says.

The new program, Cancer Epidemiology Education in Special Populations, will recruit 50 students over five years. It will leverage existing relationships between U-M faculty and cancer researchers in countries such as Israel, Egypt and Brazil.

Students will take specialized classes to learn about cancer epidemiology research, which looks at trends in cancer rates to help identify possible environmental or genetic causes. Coursework will also include an international summer field research experience or the opportunity to collaborate with local investigators specializing in minority research.

Researchers have found disparities in cancer incidence and patterns in different ethnic groups. For example, in Egypt, 35 percent of colon cancer patients are under age 40 and colon cancer rarely occurs in older populations, whereas it tends to strike older Americans and is infrequent in those younger than 40.

Other projects students and researchers will work on under this grant include investigating aggressive breast cancer in Africa by Sofia Merajver, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Cancer Center’s Breast Oncology Program; and Lisa Newman, M.D., director of the Cancer Center’s Breast Care Center; and pancreatic cancer in Arab-Americans by Diane Simeone, M.D., co-director of the Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. Other core faculty on this grant include George Kaplan, Ph.D., Director of Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, UM-SPH; MaryFran Sowers, Ph.D., Director of Center for Integrated Approaches to Complex Diseases, UM-SPH, and Mark Wilson, Sc.D., Director of Global Health Interdepartmenal Concentration Program at UM-SPH.

Cancer causes 6 million deaths every year worldwide. Cancer rates are expected to increase 50 percent to 15 million new cases by 2020.

For information on Cancer Epidemiology Education in Special Populations, go to For information on the U-M School of Public Health, go to To learn more about cancer research and care, go to

Written by Nicole Fawcett

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