Hutch News Stories

Dr. Ruth Etzioni receives Rosalie & Harold Rea Brown Endowed Chair

'Biostatistician on a mission' uses math models to improve cancer screening, reduce health disparities
Photograph of Fred Hutch public health researcher Dr. Ruth Etzioni
Longtime Fred Hutch public health researcher Dr. Ruth Etzioni was just named the recipient of the Rosalie & Harold Rea Brown Endowed Chair. Fred Hutch file photo

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center biostatistician Dr. Ruth Etzioni was just named the inaugural recipient of the Rosalie & Harold Rea Brown Endowed Chair.

The new endowed chair will help advance Etzioni’s population science research, which focuses on cancer screening and early detection, particularly in breast and prostate cancers.

Etzioni, who’s been at the Hutch for nearly 30 years, said she was floored by the news.

“I’m completely overwhelmed. It’s not something I ever expected,” she said. “I’m so grateful to the donors for this investment in population science.”

The Rosalie & Harold Brown Foundation was founded in 1997 by Southern California businessman Harold Brown Jr. Named for his parents, the foundation funds research into cancer therapies and health disparities as well as diversity and inclusion efforts within academia.

Brown Jr., now 90, was the founder and long-time chairman of HARBRO, Inc., a leading general contractor specializing in restoration of properties damaged by natural disasters.

“Our family wanted to make a gift in support of cancer research and we are well aware of Fred Hutch’s great work,” said Tim Murray, nephew of Harold Brown and grandson to Rosalie and Harold Rea Brown.

The leadership gift will allow Etzioni to continue her work, but with a little more breathing room.

“I have a good track record of funding, but it’s just never enough for the work you need to do,” she said. “Grants always get cut and there are always limits. And when it comes to working with complex data, especially for predictive models, it’s expensive.”

“It’s not necessarily the most glamorous of the cancer research disciplines, but all roads lead to population sciences,” she said. “It is the bottom line. Everything we do has to ultimately be feasible and beneficial and equitable for everybody.”

A ‘model’ researcher

An expert in statistical modeling, Etzioni leads the prostate group for the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network (CISNET) of the National Cancer Institute. She is also the head of the biostatistics and analytics core for the NCI-funded, multicenter Pacific Northwest Prostate Cancer SPORE, or Specialized Program of Research Excellence, and has a longstanding interest in identifying and reducing health disparities in cancer care.

Her research has helped to refine the use of PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, tests for prostate cancer screening, identify overdiagnosis and overtreatment of breast and prostate cancers, and create innovative mathematical models to fill data gaps in national cancer registries.

In addition to her position at Fred Hutch, Etzioni is a faculty member in the Department of Biostatistics and Health Services at the University of Washington, and she teaches in UW’s School of Public Health. She co-leads a training program in data-driven cancer research for pre- and postdoctoral researchers and is the author on the forthcoming textbook, Statistics for Health Data Science: An Organic Approach. She serves on steering committees and advisory boards of the American Cancer Society and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s national screening guidelines committees; is the immediate past chair of the Health Policy Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association; and is an American Statistical Association Fellow.

Currently, she’s working with the Washington state Department of Health, helping to create weekly situation reports on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and formulating model-based policy guidance for Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

“I’ve sort of become a ‘model whisperer’,” she said. “It’s very gratifying to help navigate this landscape. But it’s also challenging because it takes a couple of weeks for models to be able to answer a question, so you have to anticipate the questions. It’s almost like mind-reading.”

‘Biostatistician with a mission’

A self-proclaimed “biostatistician with a mission” — making sure data is translated into evidence that promotes sound health care and policy decisions — Etzioni has several research projects in the works, many of national import.

One involves the NCI’s SEER Cancer Registry — short for Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results — which tracks cancer incidence in the U.S. Etzioni is creating a way to fill in the registry’s data gaps regarding metastatic cancer recurrence, which are currently not captured.

Her RECAPSE project, launched with NCI funding in 2016, used gold-standard cancer registries (that have tracked metastatic recurrence), health insurance claims, patient-reported outcomes and other data to create a scalable and automated approach to identifying and filling in the data gaps. Results from her latest analysis will soon be published in the Journal of Medical and Internet Research.

Etzioni said this new endowed chair will allow her to continue to delve deeper into health equity issues, data gaps and “missed opportunities” to better serve patients and the public.

“With new technologies and new biomarkers, we have to think about whether they’re going to affect disparities,” she said. “Not just the harms and benefits, but how it might affect health inequities. If you don’t think about it all the way through — implementation in the population and how that’s going to work — you could be wasting your time.”

The Fred Hutch board of trustees initiative to match donor gifts to create endowed faculty chairs concluded on June 30. Thirty-five faculty members now hold Fred Hutch endowed chairs.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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Last Modified, October 21, 2020