Posted: January 28, 2013

RESEARCHER PROFILE: Cancer Research by the Numbers

Sara Bloom Leeds

Image: Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, Ph.D.

For as long as she can remember, Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, Ph.D. has loved numbers. Thus, it’s no surprise that she pursued an education in mathematics and is putting her natural prowess in the field to good use as both a biostatistician at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and as an Associate Professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.  

Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan is a biostatistician by training, and is also well-versed in population and human genetics. “As an undergraduate, I studied the more theoretical side of mathematics,” she explained. But after receiving her bachelor’s degree in general mathematics at the University of Florida, and then her master’s degree in statistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1995, she realized she wasn’t satisfied. “I thought that [math alone] just wasn’t going to be fulfilling enough for me, and I wanted to be involved in something where I could be helping people and making a real difference.”   

As she looked at various other options, she soon found the field of biostatistics, the application of statistics to a wide range of biological topics, and knew it would be perfect for her — she would be able to apply her strengths so that she could make an impact within the realm of medical research. During her time as a doctoral student, Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan had a fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where she studied the epidemiology of brain tumor genetics. “That was really my first foray into cancer,” she said. She loved this kind of research so much that she has stuck with it ever since, continuing to focus on the genetic and molecular epidemiology of cancer, while still maintaining a particular interest in brain tumors.

A Collaborative Effort to Understand Brain Tumors

As the principal investigator of the Ohio Brain Tumor Study (OBTS), Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan has been working for the last six years to build a network within the state of Ohio to enroll patients who have primary brain tumors, both malignant and benign. This network includes the brain tumor research centers at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. The study actively collects biospecimens (tumor and blood samples) and analyzes them on a genomic level, as well as amasses information on treatment, clinical outcomes and epidemiological risk factors. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) decided to team up to make OBTS a prospective recruitment network to acquire specimens as part of the GBM and lower grade glioma projects.  

Although malignant brain tumors are very rare, Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan studies gliomas because they are the most common type of malignant brain tumors and tend to be very resistant to treatment. “The TCGA data have the potential to allow us to make molecular discoveries about these tumors that could have a significant impact on diagnosis and clinical care for these patients,” she says. Plus, her multidisciplinary training and involvement in team science allows her a unique perspective that helps her to see all sides of this picture. Given the complexity and expanse of these data in TCGA, it takes someone who can approach problems with this mindset to take the results from the TCGA population and think about how to apply these results to the larger brain tumor population.

Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan is also the co-director of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Core Facility for the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. In this role, she helps investigators with bioinformatics study design and analysis, including analysis of TCGA data. She says that Cancer Center members regularly download and analyze TCGA data to address their particular hypotheses. “The TCGA data can provide very valuable preliminary information for grant applications,” she explains, “and can also serve as validation datasets for research projects.”  

Inspiration and Hope for the Future

Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan fully grasps the importance of strong study design and analysis techniques to ensure valid and reliable results. At the same time, she is undaunted by the complexity of the challenge in defeating these diverse forms of brain tumors. Inspiration comes from the patients involved in her team’s brain tumor studies. Some patients know they will see no gain from their experimental treatments themselves, but participate purely out of an altruistic desire to help those who might follow. “[They say] ‘I believe in what you’re doing,’ which means I owe it to them to find something that will help them and their families.”  

That is why she feels her work and collaboration with TCGA is so important, since it contributes to the extensive data on many different cancer types made available through CGHub and the TCGA Data Portal. Scientists can access and use that information to make future discoveries.  

“It’s also great to be able to get others excited about quantitative science, research and cancer,” she says. “My main advice to any aspiring scientist and student would be to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Then try to find a way to match those strengths with a profession that you are passionate about because then it will always be enjoyable.” As someone who’s followed her passion for numbers, she says she “really can’t imagine doing anything else.”