University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Ulrike Peters One of Two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Scientists Receiving Presidential Awards

Ulrike Peters One of Two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Scientists Receiving Presidential Awards

07/09/2009
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President Obama today announced that two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center investigators have been awarded the nation's highest honor for scientists at the beginning of their independent research careers. Basic scientist Harmit Singh Malik, Ph.D., and cancer-prevention researcher Ulrike "Riki" Peters, Ph.D., are among 100 researchers to receive the prestigious 2008 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Each will be honored in a ceremony this fall at the White House.

Since 1996 the annual PECASE awards have honored the most promising young researchers in the United States whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for strengthening America's leadership in science. The awards are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Nine federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the candidates. Selection for the award is based on two criteria: innovative research at the frontiers of sciences and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.

Peters, who was nominated for the PECASE by the National Institutes of Health, which supports her work, is an associate member of the Cancer Prevention Program within the Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division. She is also a research associate professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health.

A nutritional and genetic epidemiologist, Peters studies the link between nutrition and cancer prevention – particularly how the interplay of genetics and nutrition can impact cancer risk. Analyzing blood, DNA and tissue samples from large study populations, her work focuses on integrating genetic and molecular methods to better understand the role selenium, vitamin D, calcium and other dietary components may play in preventing prostate and colorectal cancer.

Selenium, for example, found in grains, bread, eggs, meat and fish, plays a key role in activating a small number of enzymes called selenoenzymes, which can protect cells against DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Peters and colleagues are studying whether genetic variations in selenoenzymes are associated with risk for prostate cancer, and whether such genetic variations alter the association between selenium intake and prostate-cancer risk.

Selenium represents only one aspect of Peters' research. Incorporating molecular and genetic approaches, she also studies vitamin D and calcium in the prevention of colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Peters also studies genetic variants across the entire genome and is currently conducting genomewide association studies for colon and breast cancer. The goal is to identify new genetic markers that can be used to develop better ways to detect, treat and prevent these diseases. As part of this work, she leads a large international consortium for genomewide association studies of colorectal cancer that combines data from several well-characterized population-based studies. The consortium aims to determine whether genetic variants affect colorectal cancer and whether environmental factors, including diet, drug use and smoking, modify the impact of genetic variations associated with colorectal cancer.

"This award is richly deserved. We at the Hutchinson Center are gratified, but not surprised, that Riki has been recognized for both her extraordinary accomplishments to date and the potential for her significant scientific contributions yet to come," said Polly Newcomb, Ph.D., M.P.H., head of the Center's Cancer Prevention Program.

Prior to joining the Hutchinson Center faculty in 2004, she worked at the National Cancer Institute on the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial. This experience provided Peters with a wealth of collaborative projects, giving her broad-based experience in nutritional and genetic epidemiology.

A native of Germany, Peters received her master's and doctoral degrees in nutrition at the University of Kiel, and she received her master's in public health in epidemiology from the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill.