by Tom Wilemon
The Vietnamese Ministry of Health has awarded two Vanderbilt epidemiologists the Memorabilia Medal “For the People’s Health” in appreciation for their contributions in helping the nation establish a population-based research program for cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.
The medal is the highest honor that the Vietnam government bestows upon foreign scientists who have made significant contributions in public health. Past recipients have included representatives of the World Health Organization and other international health experts.
Xiao Ou Shu, MD, PhD, MPH, associate director for Global Health and co-leader of the Cancer Epidemiology Research Program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, and Wei Zheng, MD, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center and Anne Potter Wilson Chair in Medicine, received the medals in July. Shu led a team of Vanderbilt researchers on a program to build research capacity in Vietnam that is supported primarily by a grant from the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Center for Global Health. This grant is part of NCI initiative to create and support Regional Centers of Research Excellence for non-communicable diseases in low- and middle-income countries or regions. Shu is the lead principal investigator of this grant.
“We know that disease has no borders,” Shu said. “This research benefits America also because what we learn in another country can be transferred back to the U.S. populations, particularly for some lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, and genetic factors that are difficult to study in this country due to their low prevalence.”
She cited as an example a previous study she led on soy intake among breast cancer survivors that revealed soy products in the diet were associated with a reduced breast cancer recurrence rate even though they contain large amounts of isoflavones that bind to estrogen receptors in cells. Estrogen is a hormone that has been linked to cancer growth, particularly in breast cancer. The study showed that women who ate the most soy food, more than 11.83 mg isoflavones per day, had a 27% reduced rate for breast cancer recurrence compared to those who had the lowest intake. Such a study would have been difficult to conduct without using a Chinese-based population-based study because soy is not commonly consumed in the U.S. and consumption is low and difficult to measure, Shu said. This finding has led to a change of dietary guidelines from the American Cancer Society for breast cancer survivors.
The Vanderbilt epidemiology team worked with the NCI, the Vietnamese National Cancer Hospital and Institute, the Hanoi University of Public Health and Hanoi Medical University to deliver training and capacity building workshops and in-person training sessions and to share their expertise on survey questionnaires, research protocols for collecting biospecimens, biobanking and quality control. They traveled with Vietnamese scientists to visit research laboratories in the United States and in Asian countries. They mentored them on statistical analysis and writing scientific papers.
“Non-communicable diseases have now become a problem for Vietnam as the society has transitioned from a low-income population to some extent a middle-income population now,” Zheng said. “Chronic diseases have become more common.”
In addition to the NCI-sponsored work, Shu and her team also contracted with the VINMEC International Hospital in Vietnam to develop research programs in colorectal cancer epidemiologic research.
The work in Vietnam began in 2015 when Shu and Zheng traveled there for a needs assessment. In 2017, Shu obtained a two-year NCI grant along with Thuan Van Tran, MD, director of the Vietnam National Cancer Hospital as the joint principal investigators.
The Vanderbilt team also helped Vietnamese investigators publish a special edition of Cancer Control devoted to cancers in Vietnam that included 17 peer reviewed papers. Shu, along with two Vietnamese researchers, was one of three guest editors of the special edition, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Hospital.
Several Vanderbilt professors co-authored some of those studies, including Martha Shrubsole, PhD, research professor of Medicine, Division of Epidemiology, Stephen Deppen, PhD, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of Thoracic Surgery, Staci Sudenga, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology, and Jaleesa Moore, PhD, an Epidemiology postdoctoral fellow. Sang Minh Nguyen, a Vanderbilt graduate student from Vietnam pursuing his PhD under the mentorship of Shu, also contributed to the publication.
Zheng said he welcomed the opportunity to help make a difference in Vietnam. “They need this kind of help and we have the capacity to help them,” he said.
Shu said Vietnam has an opportunity to prevent some chronic diseases related to diet and lifestyle.
“You put out the fire before it gets aflame,” she said. “That’s important.”