Margaret Karagas, PhD

Cancer discoveries to help patients

An epidemiologist and professor of community and family medicine at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Margaret Karagas, PhD, is unwavering in her commitment to find the causes and prevention of cancer and to develop insights into its treatment.

Her drive is deeply rooted in a childhood experience—when the beloved priest of her family’s Greek Orthodox Church died from lung cancer, she became interested in how a non-smoker with healthy habits could develop a cancer that is clearly linked to smoking.

This tragic event sparked her curiosity about why some people developed cancer and other apparently similar people didn’t. Her research into the cause and prevention of cancer influenced her interest in the possibility that the determinants of cancer and other diseases begin early in life.

To discover if they do, she and Dartmouth’s Interim President Carol Folt, PhD, an environmental scientist, established a formative Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center to investigate the impact of early life exposures on major childhood illnesses and pathways that influence lifelong health.

Partnerships like this typify Karagas’ research projects—epidemiologists seldom work alone. Interdisciplinary and curious by nature they are likely to exchange ideas and collaborate with other scientists.

A prime example is her work as a co-director of the Cancer Epidemiology and Chemoprevention research program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center—a multidisciplinary collaboration between laboratory investigators, biostatisticians, epidemiologists and clinicians to identify and develop interventions that inhibit the development of cancer. Karagas and Ethan Dmitrovsky, MD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology and professor of medicine, are keenly aware of the profound difference that research can make in people’s lives. They work together to foster interdisciplinary projects among clinicians and scientists who share a commitment to advance the program’s goals.

She recently established a multidisciplinary center for the study of molecular epidemiology at the Geisel School of Medicine—thanks to a $12-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Over the next five years, the grant, part of NIH’s Institutional Development Award program, will fund four interdisciplinary research projects—led by early career investigators—devoted to understanding how environmental exposures interact with genetics to affect human health, and two cores, including a Bioreository that will provide a dynamic new resource for translational scientists.

Epidemiology is becoming increasingly valued for its contribution to illuminating the causes, and in turn prevention of human disease.

“We have a talented group of investigators, all of whom are doing state-of-the-art, impactful science, “ says principal investigator Karagas. “The research being done here is truly remarkable and interdisciplinary. I am very honored to be part of it.”

Collaborating across disciplines is something that Geisel researchers do exceptionally well and Karagas understands the value of scientists and clinicians working in proximity—novel approaches to complex medical problems and new discoveries are often generated.

The new Williamson Translational Research Building at the Geisel School of Medicine Lebanon, NH, campus, will connect scientists and physicians in a collaborative and creative research culture through projects much like Karagas’—to find the reasons for causes and enhanced susceptibility to disease—and then rapidly moving discoveries into public health patient care.

With the expanding program in molecular epidemiology, Karagas says housing the Biorepository laboratory, bioinformatics, computational medicine and biostatisticians all in one building will bring a new energy and productivity to their work.

Energy and productivity—two words that aptly describe Karagas. In addition to her reputation as a devoted scientist, she’s also a dedicated mentor and teacher.

“Teaching is a rewarding and fun experience for me,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to work with many brilliant young scientists from around the world and have taught and mentored students ranging from high school interns, to doctoral students in our own Quantitative Biomedical Sciences program, along with fellows, residents and junior faculty.”

Two of Karagas’ students, who she taught as part of the undergraduate global health curriculum, went on to work with Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Minister of Health in Rwanda, which was “very exciting,” she says.

And mentoring early career investigators, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students offers learning opportunities for Karagas as well. “They are on the forefront of cutting- edge technologies and methodologies, and they inspire my own research,” Karagas says. “I am always learning from my students.”

In the midst of her professional demands, which include meetings, conferences, review panels and committees to attend, lectures to prepare, grants to submit and papers to write, Karagas makes time to stay in touch with faculty, trainees and staff as well as institutional leaders at Geisel and Norris Cotton.

“Staying connected is very important to me,” Karagas says. “It helps us to move our science and our mission forward together.”

--Susan Green

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