October 28, 2015

New COPH Epidemiology Faculty Member to Serve as UAMS Cancer Institute Co-director

C O P H Profressor, Department of Epidemiology Joseph Su, P h D, M P H

Joseph Su, Ph.D., MPH

Joseph Su, Ph.D., MPH, joined the faculty of the Department of Epidemiology at the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health on Oct. 1. He will also serve as Co-director of the Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences program at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Dr. Su most recently served as the Chief of the Epidemiology Evaluation and Research Branch of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health within the FDA Office of Surveillance and Biometrics at Silver Spring, M.D..

In a recent interview, he said that he is looking forward to furthering the COPH Department of Epidemiology’s successful record in faculty and student recruitment.

“I would like to contribute by attracting more high quality faculty and students here to collaborate with other national centers of excellence so it can be a place that improves population health and is a model for other states with similar populations,” Dr. Su said.

At the Cancer Institute, his priorities will be increased publications and funding as well as the submission of the application for National Cancer Institute designation as a NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center. The overarching goal will be “to identify some cancer prevention strategies to alleviate health disparities and to reduce cancer incidence in Arkansas,” Dr. Su said.

Dr. Su described himself as an optimist who likes working as part of a team. When asked how many people he will direct at the Cancer Institute, he corrected: “I collaborate. I believe in that and love to do that.”

His optimism extends to garnering more funds for research, which, in the current funding environment, he sees as “challenging but doable.” One field ripe for groundbreaking research in cancer prevention, in his view, is epigenetics.

According to Dr. Su, much of the work to date in that relatively new field has involved statistical modeling for gene and environmental interactions. He would like to see more studies that show the actual epigenetic changes associated with a particular environmental exposure. Because every individual has a unique genetic makeup, exposures such as those occurring through diet or lifestyle choices, as well as pharmaceutical drugs, affect everyone differently.

“Looking at epigenetic markers after exposure could provide very good predictors of cancer treatments,” Dr. Su said. “That is the natural way of looking at gene-environmental interactions.”

Dr. Su is a molecular epidemiologist for whom nutrition figured prominently in his training and research. He holds bachelor degrees in chemistry and nutrition, a master’s in public health with an emphasis in public health nutrition and a doctorate in nutritional epidemiology.

“There is more and more evidence for the effects of dietary patterns in cancer prevention; for example, eating fruits and vegetables has been shown to prevent some cancers,” Dr. Su said, adding that there is no “single magic pill such as a supplement that can prevent cancer.”

Cancer is complex with perhaps a multitude of contributing factors that include lifestyle choices and environmental exposures, he noted. Given that, he is not ready yet to say what he would recommend as a starting point in the effort to identify effective cancer strategies.

“I have to say that I really don’t know yet,” Dr. Su said. “My job in the next few months is to find out. I don’t have an answer yet.”