Dr. Christopher Li receives the Helen G. Edson Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research

Epidemiologist is working to improve early detection of breast cancer
photo of Dr. Chris Li
Dr. Christopher Li studies connections between breast cancer and lifestyle factors as well as ways to overcome healthcare disparities. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Li was recently selected as the inaugural recipient of the Helen G. Edson Endowed Chair for Breast Cancer Research.

This endowed chair will support Li’s work to develop better methods for breast cancer detection and his research on preventing metastatic recurrence (when cancer spreads to other parts of the body). Since joining the Hutch faculty in 2002, Li has studied connections between breast cancer and lifestyle factors as well as ways to overcome health care disparities.

“This is an incredible honor, and I am deeply appreciative of having my research and career recognized in this way,” Li said.

Li came to Fred Hutch in 1996 as an intern and was first introduced to breast cancer research by his adviser, epidemiologist and breast cancer researcher Dr. Janet Daling, now retired. In medical school Li had not planned to turn his career towards research, but his interest became personal when his aunt died of breast cancer just a few months after starting treatment.

Each year there are 250,000 diagnoses and 42,000 deaths from breast cancer in the U.S.

“Early in my career I became closely involved with breast cancer survivors. So many families are impacted by breast cancer, as it’s the most common cancer in women, and yet we still have so much to learn,” said Li, who is also the faculty director of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Fred Hutch and the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium’s associate director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The impact of giving

Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., who holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, noted the importance of endowed chairs and the resources they provide to cutting-edge research.

“Chris Li is an excellent choice for this honor, due to his research and his service to our community,” Lynch said. “His work is more important than ever as we double down on cancer prevention strategies and early detection resources.”

The Edson family, a longtime supporter of Fred Hutch personally and through the J. Orin Edson Foundation, created the Helen G. Edson Endowed Chair in honor of the chair’s namesake, who died of breast cancer. In addition to the endowed chair support for Li, the family created the Helen G. Edson Breast Cancer Navigator Endowed Fund which provides salary support for a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance staff member to help breast cancer patients navigate their treatment, find support groups, answer financial and insurance questions, and communicate with their health care providers.

The Edson family has been a strong Hutch supporter since 1986. They supported faculty recruitment, T-cell research, data science and strategic priorities. In 2018, the family created the J. Orin Edson Foundation Endowed Chair, now held by incoming Vice President and Chief Data Officer Dr. Jeffrey Leek, who will begin at the Hutch later this year.

Endowments form a permanent mechanism to support discovery at Fred Hutch, offering scientists a smart and strategic path to future breakthroughs.

“Getting funding is hard work. This gift provides ready access to a pool of funds that will help me quicken the pace of my research,” said Li.

The funding provided by the Helen G. Edson Endowed Chair will allow Li to pursue ideas and questions that may be difficult to get funding for immediately, he said.

Identification and prevention to save lives

One of Li’s current projects that the new endowment will support focuses on cancer recurrence. With several other investigators, Li is collecting samples of bone marrow from newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to identify dormant tumor cells and develop novel strategies to eradicate metastatic recurrence.

“More than 90% of breast cancer deaths are due to metastatic spread, and that’s why it’s critically important to develop new ways to prevent lethal metastases,” said Li.

As a public health researcher, Li is interested in developing new methods for early detection of breast cancer. Collaborating with Fred Hutch colleagues, he is working to identify biomarkers, which are biological molecules such as proteins that are a sign of cancer. While there are existing strategies such as mammograms, there are many ways to improve early detection through better access and improved accuracy to save lives.  

In December 2021, Li was also named the first associate director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Cancer Consortium. His work on breast cancer causes, screening, early detection and survivorship has made him a leader in creating more equitable health care. Li has become nationally recognized for his efforts to ensure that cancer research benefits all people and to make the research enterprise itself more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

Maintaining connections with the community of breast cancer survivors is important to Li’s work. Every summer he participates in the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD,  a science training program for advocates to better understand breast cancer, allowing them to impact research and public policy.

“This is a boot camp for breast cancer advocates, providing basic scientific training,” Li said. “I participate as a faculty member, helping them in their role as advocates and equipping them with knowledge about breast cancer.”

Most impactful for Li is the opportunity to interact with newly diagnosed patients to hear about their experiences and challenges. These interactions directly inspire and guide his work.

“Through research focused on developing new early detection strategies and understanding factors related to poor breast cancer outcomes I hope to impact the most important metric: a decline in mortality rates,” said Li.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

Kat Wynn is a communications specialist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. With a background is in nonprofit storytelling and community engagement, she previously worked in youth homelessness. Reach her at kwynn@fredhutch.org

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