Zheng’s Cancer Research Lands MERIT Award

August 7, 2009

BY: DAGNY STUART

Vanderbilt cancer epidemiologist Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., has received a MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his research on women and cancer.

The MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) awards provide long-term support to investigators with impressive records of scientific achievement in research areas of special importance or promise.

Fewer than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT awards, which provide financial support for up to 10 years without competitive review.

“I am very excited to receive this award and it is a recognition of the teamwork involved in our research,” said Zheng, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center.

“Epidemiological studies require a multidisciplinary team, and I am privileged to work with so many talented, dedicated people at Vanderbilt and many other institutions.”

The MERIT award will support continuation of the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, a population-based study of 75,000 women who were recruited between 1997 and 2000 with a major focus to identify associations between diet and lifestyle and diseases such as cancer.

Zheng and his team are studying the impact of soy foods, tea, ginseng and cruciferous vegetables on cancer risk and health.

In addition to answering detailed surveys, the women provide blood and urine samples for identification of exposure to dietary influences as well as potential disease biomarkers.

“Many studies have looked at diet and lifestyle factors that are bad for individuals, but we are trying to find things that are protective against disease,” said Zheng.

“These observational studies may allow us to gather enough evidence to launch a large trial that tests the effects of some of these compounds.”

Zheng and his investigative team also are conducting genome-wide association studies, scanning the entire genome for disease susceptibility biomarkers. They are studying telomeres, DNA copy number variations, prostaglandin metabolites and other biomarkers that may be important in cancer and other disease processes.

“Wei Zheng is an outstanding cancer investigator and mentor to many of our young researchers,” said Bill Blot, Ph.D., associate director of Cancer Prevention, Control and Population-Based Research. “The MERIT award recognizes the importance of this high-impact research on international health.”

Zheng said the award also validates the contributions of the thousands of women in the study who donate their time as well as biological samples to provide answers to important health questions.

He hopes this and other related studies will have a major impact on cancer and disease prevention.

“One of our goals is to build a risk-assessment model for breast cancer that will allow us to identify those women at high risk for the disease for cost-effective prevention,” Zheng said.

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