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Research institute or detective agency? Investigating the “perp” known as cancer

Sherlock Holmes2After graduating from college, I accepted a job as a white-collar crime analyst for the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation. It was an exciting first job for a 21-year old. I worked closely with a team of highly trained and dedicated public safety officers to help detect and prosecute white-collar criminals. My specific role was to identify patterns in criminal activity and assist in building a narrative so others could understand how and why the crime was committed.

Little did I know how closely that job would parallel my current one.

Forty years later, I find myself leading a different type of “detective agency,” the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC). CPIC employs highly skilled researchers who function a lot like private investigators. They are epidemiologists - scientist-sleuths who examine trends and patterns in the population to identify risk factors and causes and effects of disease, and their work is anything but “elementary.”

As curious and persistent as any detective, epidemiologists are driven to solve challenging public-health cases. At CPIC we pursue understanding the traits and tendencies of a particular perpetrator: cancer. For example, our researchers look at how cancers occur geographically, examining incidence and mortality rates by specific regions across California and the U.S.

"Data! Data! Data!" Sherlock Holmes cried impatiently in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. "I can't make bricks without clay." Well, like Holmes, our scientists also need data; lots of it. CPIC maintains the population-based registry of all Greater Bay Area cancer cases, as mandated by California state law. The registry is a deep source of information on the approximately 30,000 new cancer cases diagnosed each year across our nine-county area. To date, more than 850,000 Greater Bay Area cancers have been registered. Through this and other data bases, our researchers are able to “investigate” a wide range of cancers, from the most common to the rarest forms, and examine important evidence linking cancer risk with such factors as race/ethnicity, genes, environment, migration status and lifestyle.

Has our scientists' sleuthing paid off? Definitely. To illustrate, CPIC’s researchers and their colleagues at the Stanford Cancer Institute (SCI) recently found that a double mastectomy does not improve survival over the less invasive option of lumpectomy plus radiation for the average breast cancer patient, contributing important information for breast cancer patients and their physicians worldwide as they evaluate their treatment options. Research conducted by CPIC and SCI scientists also detected alarming rates of deadly melanomas in Californians, as cited in 2011 legislation that made California the first state to ban the use of tanning beds by minors. CPIC researchers also discovered that California nail salons had higher than expected levels of carcinogens, identifying a need for better health standards.

And, yes, just like Adrian Monk or Colombo, we have some quirky scientists who help make coming to work both mighty interesting and very fulfilling. If you come to visit us at CPIC, you just might spy a rumpled raincoat or two.

Donna Randall, PhD, is Chief Executive Officer of the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Previously: Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies – but not any survival benefit, Gel polish: What risks lie beneath painted beauty? and New law: No more tanning beds for California teens
Photo by dynamosquito

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