If the technology of the information age hadn’t been available when Hoda Anton-Culver began to envision how it could be used to advance cancer research, she would have tried to invent it herself. That’s how determined she was to harness the power of information and use it to accelerate progress in the fight against cancer.
Fortunately, Anton-Culver’s timing was perfect. She has used the latest technological tools available in recent years to establish a database at UCI that contains millions of pieces of data on cancer patients – a wealth of information that can be mined by researchers around the world as they seek new ways to detect cancer early and treat it effectively.
Indeed, Anton-Culver, chief of epidemiology in UCI’s School of Medicine, has accomplished far more than she imagined possible when she joined UCI nearly 25 years ago and set out to develop a major research program focusing on cancer risks related to genes, environmental influences and interactions between the two.
Anton-Culver – whose many titles include associate director of Cancer Control Research at the NCI-designated UCI Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center – helps guide cancer research at the national level by serving on the prestigious Board of Scientific Advisors of the National Cancer Institute. At UCI, she directs a number of initiatives that have made the university a national leader in cancer genetics research and medical informatics. For example:
In 1998, the NCI chose the Epidemiology Division of UCI’s School of Medicine as one of eight interdisciplinary research centers in its Cancer Genetics Network. The centers study the key role that gene mutations play in causing cancer. UCI’s center, the only one in California, builds on the strength of ongoing research in the Molecular Genetics Lab where UCI researchers are working to identify genes that make people susceptible to cancer.
UCI was also chosen by NCI in 1998 to develop and manage two of the most comprehensive human cancer genetics research databases ever undertaken. One of these Internet-based informatics systems supports research throughout the Cancer Genetics Network. The other supports an international consortium of 12 NCI research centers that are exploring causes and seeking cures for breast and colon cancer.
In 1983, Anton-Culver founded the Cancer Surveillance Programs of Orange, San Diego and Imperial Counties. This regional cancer registry was established at UCI to record and monitor all cases of cancer in a population that now numbers seven million people.
Anton-Culver, who earned her doctorate in epidemiology and biochemistry at St. Andrews University in Scotland, is excited about UCI’s growing stature in the field of cancer research and the potential for major breakthroughs in cancer prevention, detection and treatment.
“We now have critical mass – and the right combination of scientists – at UCI to make significant strides, and we’re building more strengths all the time. This is definitely the place to be,” she says.
She is especially proud of her role in creating the regional cancer reporting system, which quickly became a model for the California Statewide Cancer Reporting System and laid the groundwork for the informatics programs at UCI that enable researchers to assess hundreds of variables that might contribute to cancer.
When Anton-Culver came to UCI, there was no official record of cancer incidence in California. “The state counted deaths from cancer, but not the number of people who had the disease,” she says. “No one was collecting information that would tell us whether one treatment was more effective than another or whether screening was doing any good.”
That has changed, not only in Southern California but throughout the state – thanks to legislation that Anton-Culver helped write after her registry was identified as a model for California.
Through the regional cancer registry, UCI now collects detailed information that is reported by law on 100 percent of the cancer cases in three counties. Today, 20,000 families from the registry are involved in studies that help determine the effectiveness of new cancer screening and treatment methods. The registry also enables researchers to evaluate environmental and behavioral factors, and to explore what causes “clusters” of cancer cases in certain communities.
Hoda Anton-Culver feels a personal connection with many of the families in the registry. She has helped counsel a number of them and has followed their progress over the years.
“These families are partners in our research. We give them education, referrals – and hope,” she says.
Her commitment to patients extends beyond America’s borders. For example, she has helped launch cancer registries in Egypt, where she was born and raised, and in Mexico. She would like to do more to strengthen health prevention programs in developing countries. In these efforts, as well as her work at UCI, she constantly reaffirms the importance of information – collecting it, analyzing it and sharing it in ways that can help cancer patients as quickly as possible.
“The most significant thing we can do to improve health here and in other parts of the world is to educate,” she says. “Information is power. It takes very little to have a major effect.”