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Cancer researcher has dual roles at IU Simon Cancer Center, Fairbanks School of Public Health

  • March 6, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS – An internationally recognized cancer researcher who links genes to diseases with their environmental triggers has assumed dual roles at the new Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Jiali Han, Ph.D., has been named the Rachel Cecile Efroymson Professor in Cancer Research at the IU Simon Cancer Center, pending approval by the IU board of trustees. He is also professor and inaugural chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Fairbanks School of Public Health.

The Rachel Cecile Efroymson chair was established with a $2 million gift from the Efroymson Family Fund in Indianapolis. Lori Efroymson-Aguilera, chair of the Efroymson Family Fund, serves on the IU Simon Cancer Center’s development board. The fund has established two endowed chairs at the IU Simon Cancer Center to honor the memories of Efroymson's late husband, Dan, and their daughter, Rachel, who both lost their lives to cancer.

"I’m grateful that the Efroymson Family Fund is a partner in our mission to decrease cancer rates in Indiana with public health strategies and to increase opportunities for physicians to educate their patients about personal genetic risk factors," Dr. Han said.

Dr. Han's role is to reveal the genetic traits that trigger disease when exposed to certain behaviors and then translate that knowledge into public policy and individual prevention strategies. His research involves comparing the genes of those who are exposed to environmental risks and get cancer with those who have the same environmental exposure but remain cancer free.

"We can’t change the genes that trigger disease, but educating about individual risk can lead to behavior modification," Dr. Han said. His goal is to collaborate with physicians to provide patients with personalized prevention programs.

Dr. Han is widely known for his skin cancer research. For example, he has demonstrated a link between tanning bed exposure and increased risk of basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. He has also published studies that indicate caffeinated coffee consumption lowers the risk of developing this specific skin cancer. Most recently, he has shown that those with a personal history of prostate cancer also have a greater chance of developing melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer.

As chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Fairbanks School of Public Health, Dr. Han intends to recruit three more faculty members specializing in cancer epidemiology to join three current faculty members. Dr. Han will also serve as co-leader of the IU Simon Cancer Center's cancer prevention and control research program. Nearly 40 researchers in the program are engaged in innovative and collaborative research, with the potential to decrease cancer morbidity and mortality.

"Dr. Han is the right person at the right time for the Fairbanks School of Public Health and the IU Simon Cancer Center," said Patrick Loehrer Sr., director of the IU Simon Cancer Center. "He brings experience, enthusiasm and leadership to the burgeoning field of molecular epidemiology and cancer. Only through the understanding of the many intricacies of the causes of cancer can we hope to make meaningful and sustainable impacts in patients' lives."

Currently, Dr. Han leads collaborative studies that compare DNA markers across the genome -- the complete genetic material in a person -- in people with a disease or trait to people without the disease or trait by using bioinformatics and molecular biology tools to examine the association and the biological function of genetic variants. He has also worked on breast and lung cancers and endometriosis.

Dr. Han most recently was an associate professor of dermatology and medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. He earned his doctorate in biological sciences in public health from Harvard University.

Dr. Han serves as a key investigator on multiple National Institutes of Health-funded projects, providing critical expertise in genetic and molecular epidemiology to other faculty members and researchers. He has been the principal investigator on a number of NIH grants, and he has published more than 100 original research articles in peer-reviewed journals.

He has been invited to speak about his research at regional, national, and international scientific meetings. He is an associate editor for the journal Cancer Causes and Control and serves on the editorial board of Experimental Dermatology, and he has been a guest associate editor of PLoS Genetics. He has served on a number of national and international committees and chaired sessions of national scientific societies.  

"This is a very rare opportunity," Dr. Han said of his decision to come to Indiana University. "It's an opportunity to build a new school and a new department. It's very exciting to collaborate with outstanding physicians and scientists at IU who are doing extraordinary translational research."

About the Efroymson Family Fund

The Efroymson Family Fund was established at Central Indiana Community Foundation in 1998 by Dan and Lori Efroymson to promote the vitality of communities and to date has awarded more than $75 million in grants in central Indiana and beyond.

Jiali Han, Ph.D.

Jiali Han, Ph.D.

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