Spotlight On: Laurence N Kolonel MD PhD.

Issue 22, Winter/Spring 2014

Laurence N. Kolonel, M.D., Ph.D.

Laurence N. Kolonel, M.D., Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Public Health
University of Hawaii Cancer Center
Mànoa, Hawaii

What are the forces that drive healthy cells to become cancer cells? This question is at the heart of cancer prevention research, and few investigators have contributed more to unlocking the answer than Dr. Laurence (Larry) Kolonel, the 2012 recipient of the American Association for Cancer Research-American Cancer Society Award for Excellence in Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention.

“Most people think of genetics when they think of cancer,” Kolonel has noted. “However, only 5 percent of all cancers are attributed to inherited mutations of genes. The rest of cancers are from external factors, and the majority of those are attributed to lifestyles.”

Kolonel’s 35-year career has been dedicated to teasing out how changes in lifestyle – especially diet – influence an individual’s risk for malignancy. To do so, he attempted something few researchers had considered before: the establishment of so-called “migrant studies” that track changes in cancer incidence as populations adapt to and acquire the lifestyles of a newly adopted environment.

Working at the University of Hawaii, in the 1970s Kolonel studied the relationship between ethnicity and cancer for Japanese immigrants and other ethnic groups living in that diversely populated state. Over time, this work has helped demonstrate that changes in diet and lifestyle have the potential to either induce or prevent cancer.

The promise of these early investigations led to the establishment of the Multiethnic Cohort Study, comprising more than 200,000 individuals of Caucasian, African-American, Japanese, Latino and Native Hawaiian origin. Over 70,000 of these participants contributed blood and urine samples, an important resource for cancer prevention researchers worldwide.

Research based on these resources found that as people migrate from one culture to another, their risk for malignancy approaches that of the host population after only a few generations – pointing to changes in diet and lifestyle as key to cancer risk.

Kolonel’s research has also helped pinpoint the genetic underpinnings of disease. For example, the Multiethnic Cohort Study found that lifestyle factors largely failed to explain the higher incidence of prostate cancer among African American men compared to whites. However, data from the study helped identify a genetic variation in the 8q24 chromosomal region as a key risk factor for prostate tumors, especially among African Americans. Similar discoveries have occurred for a number of other cancer types.

In a 2012 letter to the AACR nominating Kolonel for the AACR-ACS award, a group of prominent leaders in cancer prevention research described him as, “a passionate advocate for preventive medicine… His research and the unique resources that he has developed have provided key insights that have been applied worldwide to the nutritional prevention of cancer.”

Kolonel received his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Besides the recent AACR-ACS award, Kolonel has been the recipient of a U.S. National Cancer Institute Merit Award (2002) and an NCI Career Achievement Award (2012). He remains actively involved in the Multiethnic Cohort Study and has been a member of the board of numerous scientific committees focused on nutrition and its links to cancer. He is also former associate editor of two leading AACR journals, Cancer Research and Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.