Lung cancer makes up only 15 percent of cancer diagnoses, but it is the leading cause of cancer deaths. To help doctors detect the disease in its early, most treatable stages, epidemiologists like Margaret Spitz, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, are working to develop models of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors to identify patients at greatest risk. Spitz told the audience at Harvard School of Public Health’s 155th Cutter Lecture on Preventative Medicine on May 9, 2012 that the future of cancer epidemiology lies not only in the genetics laboratory but also in the rigorously designed population study—and in getting researchers in both camps to work together.
Spitz champions “integrative epidemiology,” which brings together the latest methods for identifying the genetic variants associated with increased disease risk and the traditional sampling and statistical techniques epidemiologists use to identify patterns in populations. She described new research identifying genes associated with both a risk for nicotine dependency and lung cancer and genes linked to increased risk for obesity, but noted that as of yet the genetic models alone have no diagnostic value.