It’s no surprise that Dr. Christopher Li grew up to become a scientist. Both of his parents were faculty members in the pharmacology department at the University of Minnesota, where they worked together in the same cancer research laboratory. “I remember them talking about their work every night at the dinner table,” Li said. “I usually didn’t understand, but what was clear was their strong passion for fighting cancer.”
Although his parents were a big influence, Li didn’t follow them into the lab. He found his calling when he discovered epidemiology, a branch of medical science that aims to prevent illnesses by understanding the factors — such as diet, lifestyle and the environment — that influence disease within given populations.
“I really didn’t know what epidemiology was until I took a class during medical school,” Li said, “but I liked the idea of looking for answers that could directly improve people’s health.”
That’s exactly what Li does as an epidemiologist in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutch, where he specializes in identifying risk factors for breast cancer. Since joining the Hutch faculty in 2002, Li has helped identify important connections between breast cancer and factors such as medications, alcohol and obesity.
Li first became interested in breast cancer when he completed a summer internship at Fred Hutch under breast cancer researcher Dr. Janet Daling in 1996. “I became very excited about the work I was doing and seeing its potential to improve public health and individual patient care,” said Li, who later became the inaugural holder of the Helen G. Edson Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Li’s work became personal when his aunt died of breast cancer just a few months after she started treatment. “That really hit home,” he said. “I saw firsthand how breast cancer can devastate a family and how important it is that we improve detection, prevention and treatment.”
Breast cancer was largely considered a single disease when Li began his career, but is now recognized as having many different subtypes that are associated with different risk factors for different groups of people. In a recent study, Li found a link between use of an injectable contraceptive and an aggressive form of breast cancer in young women.
Li’s search for answers takes him down many paths. He’s identifying risk factors for incidence and recurrence of certain subtypes of breast cancer and seeking blood-based biomarkers to detect various types of breast cancer earlier when it is more treatable. He’s also examining what puts some women at risk of developing an invasive form of breast cancer after being diagnosed with a noninvasive form.
While his specific goals vary from study to study, the source of Li’s passion is always the same. “What I’ve always liked about my work is discovering something new that has the potential to make a difference,” Li said. “I particularly love looking at new data and seeing relationships between breast cancer and different lifestyle factors or medications that maybe no one has ever seen before. It’s very rewarding to think through the potential biological explanations and consider the potential impact on people’s lives.”
— Updated Jan. 25, 2022