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Prostate cancer researcher Dr. Janet Stanford retires after three decades

Career of discoveries about prostate cancer genetics, risks, outcomes
photo of Dr. Janet Stanford
Dr. Janet Stanford, who retired in early 2021, played a leading role in prostate cancer research within the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium and beyond. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

After more than 30 years at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, primarily studying prostate cancer genetics, risk factors and treatment outcomes, faculty member Dr. Janet Stanford has retired. She now holds the title of professor emeritus.

Over her career, Stanford has made an impact both through her scientific discoveries and her leadership, said longtime research colleague Dr. Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“Janet is best known for her studies of prostate cancer risk factors in men from the general population as well as men from high-risk families,” said Ostrander, who is chief of the NHGRI’s Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch and head of its Section on Comparative Genetics. “She has identified dozens of putative risk alleles [gene variants] and environmental risk factors and played a major leadership role in several high-impact consortia.”

Leadership in prostate cancer research

Stanford first came to the Hutch in 1986 as an assistant member in the Fred Hutch Public Health Sciences Division's Epidemiology Program and eventually was promoted to a full professorship. Her initial research was on breast and ovarian cancer, but by the early 1990s her focus had shifted to prostate cancer. During the ensuing decades, she played a leading role in prostate cancer research within the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium and beyond.

She was head of the Consortium’s Program in Prostate Cancer Research from 1997 to 2007 and then co-head until 2017. The efforts of the program under her leadership were critical for the Consortium to be awarded a highly competitive, large grant for collaborative prostate cancer research called a Specialized Program in Research Excellence, or SPORE, for which she was co-principal investigator since its beginning in 2002.

Stanford has always had a “team-based approach to doing science,” Ostrander said. “Throughout her career she has built teams of faculty, clinicians, trainees and colleagues who share a common goal of understanding the genetic underpinnings of various cancers. Her ability to assemble and lead such teams is unusual and highly valued.”

“Throughout her career she has built teams of faculty, clinicians, trainees and colleagues who share a common goal of understanding the genetic underpinnings of various cancers. Her ability to assemble and lead such teams is unusual and highly valued.”
— collaborator Dr. Elaine Ostrander

In addition to her position at Fred Hutch, Stanford had been a professor of epidemiology in UW’s School of Public Health and had held an adjunct position in the School of Medicine’s Urology Department. At the UW, she taught an epidemiology course for graduate students and mentored graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early career physician-scientists. Over her career she has also made a variety of contributions to scientific organizations around the U.S. as a grant reviewer, adviser and journal editorial board member.

Major research impacts

In all her research projects, Stanford had a special ability to keep the humanity of research at the forefront, said both Ostrander and Consortium colleague Dr. Jonathan Wright.

“She made all around her understand how the work being done could impact patients, empowering those to work harder because of the tangible goal ahead,” said Wright, a prostate cancer physician-scientist and medical director of the urology clinic at UW Medical Center. “She taught great respect and appreciation for research participants,” he said, and “tirelessly” worked to protect their privacy and the security of their data.

One of Stanford’s major contributions has been on the genetics of prostate cancer. She and colleagues have identified a number of genetic variants that alter one’s likelihood of developing prostate cancer, having more aggressive disease or of dying from the cancer, both throughout the general population and within high-risk families. She conducted this work primarily through the Prostate Cancer Association Group to Investigate Cancer-Associated Alterations in the Genome (the PRACTICAL Consortium), the African Ancestry Prostate Cancer Consortium, and the International Consortium for Prostate Cancer Genetics.

“Translation of these findings will hopefully facilitate identification of men who could benefit most from prostate cancer screening and early detection efforts as well as help guide follow-up and treatment decisions,” Stanford said.

Another of Stanford’s major research contributions is the identification of biomarkers — biological signals in tissue samples — of aggressive forms of prostate cancer. Her team collected samples of primary prostate tumors from hundreds of patients. They kept tabs on the patients over the years to follow the course of their disease — discovering certain telltale molecular differences in the tissue samples from the patients who later would die of their cancers.

“These studies demonstrate that molecular changes in primary tumor tissue can be used to predict tumor aggressiveness and help stratify men at high risk for adverse outcomes,” she said. Understanding which patients are likely to have the most aggressive disease can help doctors select the best treatment strategies upfront.

“She made all around her understand how the work being done could impact patients, empowering those to work harder because of the tangible goal ahead."
— colleague Dr. Jonathan Wright

Finally, Stanford’s research as part of the Prostate Cancer Outcomes Study provided valuable information on side effects of treatment to help guide physicians’ and patients’ shared decision-making. This study at research centers throughout the country enrolled the first large, community-based group of patients to study the side effects of primary prostate cancer treatment on patients’ urinary, sexual and bowel functioning as well as overall quality of life. One of the team’s key findings was that patients who underwent radical prostatectomy — removal of the entire prostate and some surrounding tissues — had a higher frequency of erectile dysfunction than the medical community previously had known.

In all her research, said Wright, Stanford has had a commitment to accuracy and an eye for detail that awed and motivated her colleagues.

“Her attention to detail and precision of work served as a high bar we all sought to achieve, realizing we would never reach her level, but were inspired to try,” Wright said.

Looking ahead

As an emeritus professor, Stanford will be continuing some of her research projects into retirement, including her work with the large prostate cancer genetics consortia and continued collaboration with her local colleagues to analyze their trove of genetic and tissue biomarker data. She said she looks forward to having more time in retirement for loved ones and hobbies, including gardening, traveling, boating and cooking. But she'll miss her daily interactions with the Hutch community she knows so well.

“One of the things I will miss most is the people — faculty, staff and students — who I had the opportunity to work with. There are some of the most amazing people working at the Hutch, and I will miss the day-to-day interactions with these colleagues and friends,” Stanford said. “I am so grateful for the opportunities and support that I had at the Hutch.”

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Last Modified, June 16, 2021