SEATTLE — Nov. 14, 2002 — One of the world's premier authorities on the connection between diet and cancer has assumed the directorship of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Public Health Sciences Division, the largest of the center's four scientific domains.
Cancer epidemiologist John Potter, M.D., Ph.D., who since 1994 has headed the center's Cancer Prevention Research Program — the nation's oldest and largest program dedicated to understanding the causes of cancer and how to prevent it — sums up the new challenge with one word: "Opportunity."
"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," said Potter, also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
Although Potter already has begun to cut back on some of his outside commitments to accommodate the considerable administrative responsibilities of the new post, which became official Nov. 1, he 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."
Using large populations as their "laboratory," public-health researchers look for links between diseases such as cancer and their possible triggers, from diet and lifestyle to environmental and genetic factors. More than a million people worldwide have participated in Fred Hutchinson public-health studies.
Potter has been a pioneer in demonstrating the cancer-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 their preventive effect.
His leadership activities in the field of cancer prevention include chairing 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 600-page tome is considered the definitive source for scientists and policymakers on the feasibility of reducing cancer incidence through diet and other environmental factors.
Potter also has studied colorectal cancer and its precursors for more than 20 years. With his colleagues he has made major contributions to understanding the dietary factors that increase colorectal-cancer risk, such as protein, meat, sugar and alcohol, as well as those that reduce risk, such as vegetables, vitamin E, folate, calcium and physical activity. He also was the first, more than 20 years ago, to propose that female sex hormones would reduce the risk of colon cancer, a prediction recently proved in a Fred Hutchinson-led clinical trial.
Most recently, Potter and colleagues at Fred Hutchinson and the University of Utah have focused on how the effects of specific cancer-risk factors, such as meat and smoking, and specific protective agents, such as aspirin, are modified by inherited metabolic variability.
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.
As the recipient of the 2001 Donovan J. Thompson Excellence in Faculty Mentoring Award, Potter also is known for inspiring young faculty, postdocs and students to achieve breadth in their research interests.
"I think it's very important that today's scientists can cross boundaries between population science and laboratory science," he said.
Potter succeeds biostatistician Ross Prentice, Ph.D., whose leadership since 1983 helped establish the Public Health Sciences Division as a premier hub for research in biostatistics, cancer prevention and epidemiology.
"I'm proud of the division's evolution to one of the leading groups on population research and cancer prevention," he said. Under his leadership the division blossomed from a faculty and staff of about 150 to more than 900; today the division's research is supported by nearly $55 million in federal funding.
Prentice will continue to pursue his two primary research interests: developing statistical methods needed for population research and serving as principal investigator of the Clinical Coordinating Center for the Women's Health Initiative, the largest study ever devoted to women's health.
"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," said Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., center president and director. "While Ross' shoes will be challenging to fill, John Potter has pretty big feet himself."
A black and white photo of Potter is available upon request.
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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home of two Nobel Prize laureates, is an independent, nonprofit research institution dedicated to the development and advancement of biomedical technology to eliminate cancer and other potentially fatal diseases. Fred Hutchinson receives more funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other independent U.S. research center. Recognized internationally for its pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation, the center's four scientific divisions collaborate to form a unique environment for conducting basic and applied science. Fred Hutchinson, in collaboration with its clinical and research partners, the University of Washington Academic Medical Center and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the Pacific Northwest and is one of 38 nationwide. For more information, visit the center's Web site at www.fhcrc.org.