Under the leadership of its director, Caryn Lerman, MD, the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center is embarking on an ambitious plan to harness data science and integrate “big data” related to multiple risk factors. Their goal is to develop better models to predict cancer occurrence and to reduce risk with appropriate interventions in susceptible populations.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to extend beyond traditional risk factors and genomic testing in a diverse population that differs widely in terms of socioeconomic status, diet and environmental exposures,” said Lerman, who is also the H. Leslie and Elaine S. Hoffman Cancer Research Chair and associate dean for cancer programs at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

There are many nontraditional risk factors, she explained, including where a person lives and their exposure to environmental carcinogens, whether they experience poverty and the role of the microbiome — a profile of microbes that live in different parts of our bodies that is influenced by diet and other environmental exposures.

To increase knowledge of these understudied risk factors, and more importantly to integrate this knowledge for more precise risk predictions, USC Norris researchers will use the latest surveillance technologies — including wireless monitoring devices — to record health-related and environmental exposure data from participants across Los Angeles County. Data scientists will leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze the data, draw insights, pinpoint trends and make predictions about how, where and when different people are impacted.

A central priority for the center is reducing health care disparities between people of different racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County.

“Understanding and addressing the cancer needs of our diverse populations is one of the things that makes our research at USC Norris so unique,” said Mariana Stern, PhD, associate director of population science at USC Norris.

“Importantly, our efforts are not only geared towards understanding why some minority populations have higher cancer incidence and mortality rates than other groups but also on training the next generation of underrepresented minority scientists and dedicating significant efforts to engage our minority communities in cancer education and research,” she added.

USC Norris researchers and their initiatives include:

  • Christopher Haiman, ScD, co-leader of the USC Norris Cancer Epidemiology Research Program, is collaborating with multiple centers across the country in a study focused on understanding genomic and social determinants of cancer risk and outcomes among Black men with prostate cancer.
  • Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, associate director of community outreach and engagement at USC Norris, is co-leading efforts to increase screenings for cervical cancer among Latina women.
  • Eunjung Lee, PhD, is addressing the higher risk of stomach cancer among Koreans.
  • Myles Cockburn, PhD, co-leader of the USC Norris Cancer Control Research Program, is leading efforts focused on melanoma among Latinos, with a focus on cancer prevention among kids and early detection among adults.
  • Adam Leventhal, PhD, Maryann Pentz, PhD, and Jessica Barrington-Trimis, MD, are studying how vaping progresses to tobacco use in young people.
  • Heinz-Josef Lenz, MD, and Amir Goldkorn, MD, are collaborating with other experts in leading a national trial testing a noninvasive procedure called a liquid biopsy that could help identify certain cancers early, when they are most curable.

“These efforts, and many more underway at USC Norris, will help guide policy and help us better manage the health of the different populations we serve,” Lerman said. “If we can identify populations at risk for certain cancers, we can target prevention efforts where they are needed the most.”

— Sarah Nightingale