Lombardi Researcher Receives $6.4 Million Grant to Study Cancer and Aging

Two people participate in a charity walk
Jeanne Mandelblatt, MD, MPH (left) and Larry Tyson, Avon teammate (right) at the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

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August 20, 2015 — While cancer disproportionately affects older individuals, there is relatively little research funding devoted to exploring the relationship between cancer and aging. With the support of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Georgetown Lombardi scientist Jeanne Mandelblatt, MD, MPH, will spend seven years investigating this underdeveloped field.

As the recipient of a NCI Outstanding Investigator Award, Mandelblatt will use the $6.4 million grant to conduct population science research involving older cohorts of  breast cancer survivors. “Our research will begin by comparing the trajectory of physical and cognitive decline among older cancer survivors to the decline in those of the same age and background without cancer. This will help us investigate how bio-behavioral factors interact with cancer treatment to impact survivors’ outcomes,” says Mandelblatt. “We then hope to determine whether biological age can be used in clinical practice to identify patients at risk of losing function.”

Rather than viewing all elderly survivors as a monolithic group, Mandelblatt’s project acknowledges the distinction between a person’s “biological age” and chronological age, or the years since one’s birth. While two cancer survivors may have the same chronological age, differences in their lifestyles and biology can cause them to age at different rates.

For example, higher levels of exercise and social support can mitigate the aging process, while certain genetic dispositions can accelerate it. These differences may influence their odds of experiencing adverse treatment effects, important to consider when making therapy decisions and thinking about long-term care.

“In the third phase of the project, we will test to see if lifestyle interventions, such as increases in physical activity, affect patient outcomes,” Mandelblatt says. “Ultimately, we plan to increase the reach of the study by integrating its data into a policy model that could inform future trials.”

Building on Past Work

This award is not Mandelblatt’s first entry in the world of cancer survivorship and aging. As the associate director of population science for Georgetown Lombardi and a founding member of its Cancer Prevention and Control Program, she has collaborated with colleagues across the country while serving as the principal investigator for several NIH studies focused on older populations. Most recently, she led another NCI-funded study examining cognitive outcomes in older breast cancer patients. That study, and a continuation award that will be funded shortly, form the basis for her current work.

Mandelblatt is one of 21 scientists, including four women, to receive an NCI Outstanding Investigator Award so far this year. Won through her remarkable record of productive cancer research, the grant will support  her continued leadership in the field, training the next generation of scientists in aging-related cancer studies.

“[The Award] addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience:  finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” says Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”

A Need for Research

As the country’s population ages, studies such as these will be even more important. By 2030, three-quarters of cancer survivors will be over age 60, and they will be living longer than previous generations of survivors. With greater age comes a greater number of potential complications that may interfere with medical care, such as the presence of other conditions that compound functional decline. Yet, perhaps because of these complications, the large majority of research has targeted younger individuals. Only four percent of NCI-funded projects focused on cancer survivorship specifically examine outcomes in older individuals, and Mandelblatt sees the potential for her work to fill some of the gaps in existing knowledge.

“In the coming years, many older patients diagnosed with cancer will wish to reap the benefits of new cancer therapies. We need to have a greater understanding of how treatment will affect quality of life for individuals from all walks of life.” Mandelblatt says. “By gathering evidence about the links between biology, behavior and patient function, we can enable survivors to make better informed choices about treatment and reduce the burden of their cancer.”

Meghan Lasswell
GUMC Communication