Hutch News Stories

'A time of enormous opportunity'

Starting Nov. 1, prevention expert Potter to lead Public Health Sciences
Dr. John Potter
On Nov. 1, Dr. John Potter, head of the center's Cancer Prevention Research Program since 1994, will assume the directorship of Public Health Sciences. Photo from external relations archives

The leader of a scientific division renowned for its research on the power of a healthy diet to fight cancer might be expected to practice what he preaches.

So it's only fitting that the next director of the Public Health Sciences Division is a man frequently spotted munching on soybeans rather than cookies at noontime seminars.

On Nov. 1, award-winning epidemiologist Dr. John Potter, head of the center's Cancer Prevention Research Program since 1994, will assume the directorship of PHS. He will replace Dr. Ross Prentice, whose leadership since 1983 helped to establish the division as a premier hub for research in biostatistics, cancer prevention and epidemiology.

"If I were to choose one word that characterizes my enthusiasm for taking on this role, it would be 'opportunity,' " Potter said.

'Build on existing strengths'

"We have the opportunity to build on our existing strengths in generating good hypotheses about the nature of cancer causes and prevention and to combine them with the wealth of information from the genome project and new strategies like microarrays and proteomics.

"We're at the beginning stages - both in our division and in the field - of a time of enormous opportunity."

That philosophy, Prentice said, is exactly what distinguishes Potter as an ideal division leader

. "We're quite fortunate to have someone of John's interests and abilities take on the division director role," he said.

"John's interface between population science and laboratory studies is very appropriate for the further development of our division. What's more, he's developed a strong reputation for leadership and vision in leading the Cancer Prevention Research Program, the largest program at the center."

Potter was named as the top candidate by several public-health sciences experts who were invited to visit the center over the last year to advise on the search process, said Dr. Lee Hartwell, center president and director.

"During the course of this recruitment effort, we had some of the top people in the field visit the center," he said. "Their input made it clear that John was the obvious choice for the position. We agree.

"We are mindful of the sustained outstanding leadership that Ross Prentice has exercised for almost 20 years that has brought this division to its current state of international excellence. While Ross' shoes will be challenging to fill, John Potter has pretty big feet himself."

Potter, also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, has been involved in the study of colorectal cancer for more than 20 years.

With his colleagues, he has made major contributions to the understanding of the dietary factors that increase colorectal-cancer risk, such as protein, meat, sugar, alcohol, and obesity in men, as well as those that reduce risk - such as vegetables, vitamin E, folate, calcium and physical activity.

Most recently, Potter and colleagues in CPRP and at the University of Utah have focused on the way in which risk associated with specific exposures, such as meat and smoking, might be modified by inherited metabolic variability.

Potter has also been a leader in research that demonstrated the preventive potential of vegetables and fruit. In 1991, he produced the first comprehensive review of cancer, vegetables and fruit that explored both the epidemiologic evidence and the existing literature on possible mechanisms of this preventive effect.

Expert-panel chair

Among his leadership activities in the field of cancer prevention was to chair an international panel of experts convened by the American Institute for Cancer Research that resulted in the 1997 publication of "Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer." The report is considered the definitive source for scientists and policymakers on the feasibility of reducing cancer incidence through diet and other environmental factors.

In 2000, Potter was awarded the American Association for Cancer Research DeWitt S. Goodman Lectureship for international leadership in research in nutrition, cancer and cancer prevention. He also received the Herbert J. Block Memorial Lectureship Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research from the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute of Ohio State University.

Preparing for his new role, Potter already has met with PHS and center leaders to define new areas of development and reorganization.

"With the PHS faculty, I hope to expend some considerable energy on optimizing the lab-population science intersection while not forgetting that the ultimate goal is to improve cancer prevention and early detection and lower the impact of cancer and other diseases where we have major expertise, notably HIV/AIDS."

The new PHS building on the Day Campus, to open in spring 2004, is key to many of these bridging activities, said Potter, who is thrilled that "we will finally have a truly integrated campus."

Bridging also is a theme of Potter's attitude toward mentorship. As the recipient of the 2001 Donovan J. Thompson Excellence in Faculty Mentoring Award, Potter is known for inspiring young faculty, postdocs and students to achieve breadth in their research foci.

"I think it's very important that today's scientists can cross boundaries between population science and laboratory science," he said.

Active researcher

Although he has already begun to cut back some of his research and outside commitments to accommodate the time constraints sure to come with his new responsibilities, Potter plans to remain an active researcher.

"Nobody wants a division director who is just an administrator," he said. "It's critical to stay connected to the science."

And what about those soybeans for lunch? Will an eatery in the new PHS building serve nothing but sprouts and tofu? Potter, a vegetarian for the past 30 years, says it's unlikely.

"Most of our division members do practice a healthy lifestyle," he said. "but there is some room for flexibility in the diet. And besides, I have never been a member of the food police."


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