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An oncologist from the land of fire and ice

iceland 2013 210
When Sigurdis Haraldsdottir, MD, first set foot on the Stanford campus last October, she was immediately struck by the mild weather, the abundance of fresh produce and — in the greater Bay Area — the varied wildlife.

Haraldsdottir (on the right in the photo above, with her spouse, Roza) is a native of Iceland, a country known for its distinctive, extreme landscapes and volatile climate. Though she’s quickly adjusted to life in California, her home country continues to color her professional interests and her free time.

Iceland has a population of little more than 300,000 — roughly the same size as St. Louis, Mo. Virtually all of its residents descend from a small band of settlers who came from Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia about 2,000 years ago. This genetic homogeneity is what led geneticists to found deCode in 1996, creating a company to tap the wealth of medical and genomic data of the Icelandic people.

Haraldsdottir focuses on Lynch Syndrome, a genetic condition that predisposes patients to several cancers. She’s currently mapping out the cases of colorectal cancer and Lynch Syndrome in the Icelandic population.

As she explained in a recent article on the Department of Medicine website:

The prevalence of [Lynch Syndrome] is not accurately known. The initial prevalence numbers out of Finland were that 1 in 700 people carries the syndrome, but today we believe it is more common than that, likely 1 in 300. Of all colorectal cancers, 2 to 3 percent are caused by Lynch Syndrome.

Identifying that 2 to 3 percent is important, Haraldsdottir continued, “because their family members might also carry Lynch Syndrome, and then they can undergo colonoscopies and gyn exams to try to prevent those cancers. As an oncologist I think it’s so important that we’re not just treating but we’re also trying to prevent these cancers.”

Iceland sits in the middle of the stormy North Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and Greenland. Its geographic isolation and insularity has given rise to a vibrant culture, and provides a key to Haraldsdottir’s off-hours pursuits:

In Iceland we are a nation of singing and storytelling because there wasn’t all that much we could do back in the day when we were very isolated in the North Atlantic.

Every Icelander is either a musician or has written a book. We have the highest number of authors per capita in the world. So I haven’t written a book, but I play an instrument and I love singing and jamming on the guitar.

Previously: The bacteria that nearly killed my grandmother, The cost-effectiveness of screening colon cancer patients for Lynch disorder and Gene panel  screens for dozens of cancer-associated mutations, say Stanford researchers
Photo courtesy of Sigurdis Haraldsdottir

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