Wu Xifeng: An in­no­va­tor in med­i­cal science

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chinadailyusa.com

Imag­ine that one day in the near fu­ture, you will be able to buy a com­puter chip, prick your fin­ger and drop a dro­plet of blood on it, connect it to your smart­phone, upload the data to an app, key in your life­style habits and data, and voila, you get a per­son­al­ized eval­u­a­tion of your risk for can­cer and ad­vice on how to lower the odds of it hap­pen­ing.

“We have al­ready patented the tech­nol­ogy, now we are work­ing on how to com­mer­cial­ize it,” said Wu Xifeng, chair of the Depart­ment of Epi­demi­ol­ogy at MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter in Hous­ton.

This is just one of many in­no­va­tive re­search projects Wu and her 50-plus mem­ber re­search team is work­ing on. Rec­og­nized as one of the best in the world, Wu’s large and multi-dis­ci­plinary re­search op­er­a­tion en­com­passes data col­lec­tion, bio-spec­i­men pro­cess­ing, molec­u­lar and ge­nomics lab work and sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis.

Their fo­cus is to un­der­stand the con­nec­tion be­tween ge­netic sus­cep­ti­bil­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors for var­i­ous types of can­cer.

Wu is known for her abil­ity to iden­tify emerg­ing trends and her in­no­va­tive ap­proach to re­search. She cre­ated MD An­der­son Can­cer Pa­tient Co­hort. Com­bin­ing pa­tients’ biorepos­i­tory, blood spec­i­mens and his­to­ries, Wu and her team are able to iden­tify fac­tors im­pact­ing can­cer symptoms, prog­no­sis, treat­ment re­sponse, tox­i­c­ity, sur­vival and qual­ity of life.

“The re­sult is a per­son­al­ized treat­ment plan based on an in­di­vid­ual pa­tient’s ge­netic traits, life­style and re­ac­tion to chemo­ther­apy,” said Wu. Treat­ment in­cludes rec­om­men­da­tions on be­hav­ior changes for a pa­tient to main­tain a health­ier life­style.

“I was born into a fam­ily of medicine,” said Wu. “Prac­tic­ing Chi­nese medicine was passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion as a fam­ily her­itage all the way to my mother.”

Per­haps there is such a thing as a med­i­cal gene. Wu chose medicine as her path in 1979 and en­tered the Shang­hai Med­i­cal Col­lege of Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity.

She be­came in­ter­ested in public health and oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease do­ing her grad­u­ate stud­ies at Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity and sub­se­quently as a re­searcher at Zhe­jiang Academy of Med­i­cal Sciences.

In 1989, a French pro­fes­sor she once lent a help­ing hand to dur­ing an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence of­fered her a fel­low­ship. “I helped him with­out a sec­ond thought, yet it brought me a turn­ing point op­por­tu­nity in my life,” Wu said.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at the Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory of Industrial En­vi­ron­ment and Risk Anal­y­sis in France, Wu came to Hous­ton in 1991 to re­unite with her hus­band and en­tered the Uni­ver­sity of Texas School of Public Health on a schol­ar­ship.

“I soon be­came in­ter­ested in epi­demi­ol­ogy and my ad­vi­sor Dr Ge­orge Del­c­los not only didn’t stop me from leav­ing him, he helped me fig­ure out how to get what I wanted. He con­tin­ued to chair my dis­ser­ta­tion com­mit­tee. From him, I learned the value of a win/win ap­proach, and this men­tal­ity has helped me tremen­dously through­out my ca­reer,” said Wu.

At one point Wu con­sid­ered get­ting a job be­cause her hus­band was also in school and money was an is­sue.

“My epi­demi­ol­ogy ad­vi­sor Dr Mar­garet Spitz and my hus­band strongly ad­vised against the idea and I even­tu­ally gave it up. I guess they both saw some po­ten­tial in me,” re­called Wu.

Com­bined with her re­search in oc­cu­pa­tional dis­ease, public health and epi­demi­ol­ogy, Wu learned the in­te­grated re­search ap­proach un­der Spitz, a well rec­og­nized sci­en­tist. Wu earned her PhD de­gree in only two and half years — half of the nor­mal time of the pro­gram and a record at UT School of Public Health.

Wu ap­plied to three po­si­tions upon grad­u­a­tion. Com­pet­ing against hun­dreds of ap­pli­cants, she was ac­cepted by all three. Wu ini­tially wanted to take the job at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota be­cause it paid best, but Spitz wanted her to stay at UT, and, out of loy­alty, she did.

Wu was also ac­cepted by MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter at the same time, and she ended up be­com­ing a joint as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at both UT and MD An­der­son in 1995. Years later, her du­ties at MD An­der­son came to de­mand her full at­ten­tion and she gave up her po­si­tion at UT in 2010.

“I mostly just fo­cused on do­ing re­search to the best of my abil­ity with­out think­ing much of any­thing else. I find re­search very in­ter­est­ing. Ev­ery­day I run into some­thing new. I get to ask a ques­tion, or­ga­nize a team, and then re­solve it. I work hard but I en­joy it,” said Wu, who has served on 20 grant re­view pan­els and or­ga­nized and chaired nu­mer­ous in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences.

Her hard work has pro­duced re­mark­able re­sults. In 1995, she won the Dev­ereaux Award for Out­stand­ing Young In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Lung Can­cer Pre­ven­tion from the Re­search Foun­da­tion of Amer­ica. Over the years, she has pub­lished close to 400 peer­re­view pa­pers, in­vited ar­ti­cles and editorials in jour­nals such as Na­ture and Science.

In 2008, Wu was awarded the Rogers Award for Ex­cel­lence. Her achieve­ments and abil­i­ties won her a plethora of large re­search grants, in­clud­ing $30 mil­lion in fund­ing from the Na­tional Can­cer In­sti­tute

Wu also ex­cels as a teacher. She won the fac­ulty scholar award in 2002, the fac­ulty achieve­ment award in 2008 and the dis­tin­guished men­tor award in 2011. Twelve of her mentees have ob­tained ten­ure or ten­ure-track po­si­tions.

Wu is a nat­u­ral leader. Through­out her re­search, she’s well-known for her abil­ity to es­tab­lish ex­ten­sive in­sti­tu­tional, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions. She has led more than 20 re­search projects, and is cur­rently head­ing sev­eral na­tional and in­ter­na­tional projects. This is part of the rea­son why, in 2001, de­spite nu­mer­ous con­tenders for the po­si­tion, Wu was asked to be the chair of the epi­demi­ol­ogy depart­ment, a ti­tle she has held since then.

For Wu, ad­min­is­tra­tive du­ties mostly in­volve help­ing other fac­ulty mem­bers, and she squeezes her per­sonal time to make sure she stays at the fore­front of re­search.

This year, Wu was rec­og­nized be­yond the world of medicine. She was named one of Hous­ton’s 50 Most In­flu­en­tial Women of 2014.


Wu Xifeng talks about her med­i­cal ca­reer in her of­fice at MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, Hous­ton.

WU XIFENG Ed­u­ca­tion: · MD, Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity, 1984 · MS, Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity, 1987 · PhD, Uni­ver­sity of Texas Health Science Cen­ter, Hous­ton, TX Ca­reer: · Se­nior Fel­low of the MD An­der­son Re­search Trust, MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, 2008-present · Pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of Epi­demi­ol­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of Texas School of Public Health, Hous­ton, TX, 20082010 · As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of Epi­demi­ol­ogy, MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, 2000-2004 · As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor, MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, Hous­ton, TX, 1995-2000 Hon­ors and Awards: · Hous­ton’s 50 Most In­flu­en­tial Women of 2014 · Wall of Science Pub­li­ca­tion Gallery In­clu­sion, MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, 2012-present · Robert M. Cham­ber­lain Dis­tin­guished Men­tor Award, 2011 · Betty B. Mar­cus Chair in Can­cer Pre­ven­tion, 2008 · Julie and Ben Rogers Award for Ex­cel­lence, 2008 · Ash­bel Smith Pro­fes­sor­ship, The Uni­ver­sity of Texas, 2006-2008 · Fac­ulty Scholar Award, An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, 2002 · Richard C. Dev­ereaux Award for Out­stand­ing Young In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Lung Can­cer Pre­ven­tion, Re­search Foun­da­tion of Amer­ica, 1995

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