Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Working at CSU

Cancer epidemiologist works to unravel the riddle of genetic susceptibility to cancer

February 23, 2010
By Carol Borchert

Lesley Butler came to Colorado State University in 2008 and is working as a cancer epidemiologist in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. Her current research projects include evaluating various diet and cancer hypotheses specific to colorectal, breast, and prostrate cancer risk.

Assistant Professor Lesley Butler in Singapore for research tracking diet as well as the development of cancer and other chronic diseases in a cohort of 63,000 men and women.

Pieces of a puzzle

While at work in a laboratory at the University of Washington years ago, Lesley Butler was genotyping samples – hundreds of tubes of samples – which she didn’t really think too much about until she learned what it was she was actually genotyping.

The samples were part of a large population-based breast cancer study and all of a sudden those tubes became more than samples – they became pieces of a puzzle that may help unravel the riddle of individual genetic susceptibility to cancer risk.

Career turning point

Beth Newman, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, had come to UW to share the broader-based goals of the study and Butler was intrigued with her work as a cancer epidemiologist.

“Meeting her was a turning point for me,” said Butler, who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Epidemiology brings together health, science, and statistics

“She was brilliant and enthusiastic and I decided to apply to the master’s program in public health and epidemiology at UNC. I was interested in being a physician, and knew this program wouldn’t shut any doors for me, but after six months I knew I had found my career. Epidemiology brings together statistics, health, and science. I knew I had met my tribe.”

Butler continued to work on breast cancer for her master’s and then decided to continue toward getting a doctorate in epidemiology. She began working with Bob Millikan on a colon cancer study, which looked at genetic susceptibility in the NAT1 and NAT2 genes involved in metabolizing carcinogens commonly found in grilled, charred meat. (The study showed a twofold increase in the development of colon cancer among those who ate more charred meat and also carried the susceptible genotype.)

Gene/diet interactions

Her postdoctoral fellowship took her to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C., where she studied gene/diet interactions, particularly looking at nonmalignant lung disease. She joined the Singapore Chinese Health Study in 2001 looking at a cohort of 63,000 men and women and tracking diet as well as the development of cancer and other chronic diseases.

“This is a fascinating study in that some of the participants have a more Western diet, while others have maintained a more traditional Asian diet of rice, cruciferous vegetables, and fish,” said Butler, who analyzes the study’s data sets and recently returned from a trip to Singapore where she traveled to better understand the region’s culture and diet as they pertain to the study.

Dietary patterns and incidence of cancer

“Singapore has a national cancer registry, so we have a good database from which to identify our cases. This study began in 1993 with a baseline questionnaire, and also collected pre-diagnostic blood and urine samples. We have an ongoing active and passive follow-up program looking at dietary patterns and the incidence of cancer.”

Plans in-depth genetic studies of cancer in dogs

She looks forward to developing cooperative research projects with the Animal Cancer Center, which has an extensive biospecimen repository that will enable in-depth genetic studies of cancer in dogs. She also is developing a graduate-level class in the principles of cancer epidemiology that will be offered beginning Fall 2010.

Originally published in the Winter 2010 ERHS Emitter.