As a molecular epidemiologist with a background in medicine and basic science, Lifang Hou, MD, PhD, associate professor of Preventive Medicine–Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, focuses her research on identification of risk factors, disease development, and progression in environment pollutant exposures, and identification of biomarkers that may serve as indicators of an individual’s past exposure to disease risk factors.
Over the past three years, Hou expanded her research to cancer prevention by conducting early-phase cancer chemoprevention clinical trials in at-risk individuals. She is chief of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention in Preventive Medicine and co-director of International Relations at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, where she provides leadership to expand the Lurie Cancer Center’s global alliances.
Hou joined Northwestern in 2007 after serving as research associate at the National Cancer Institute.
What are your research interests?
I focus my research on the identification of risk factors for the development and progression of diseases that stem from pollutants and other environmental exposures, and biomarkers that can serve as biological indicators of an individual’s past exposure to risk factors and/or predictors of diseases, particularly cancers.
Specifically, I have been conducting studies that use leading-edge, high-throughput technologies to examine the role of epigenetic biomarkers in the etiology and prediction of cancer and other chronic diseases in populations, including Caucasian, African, African-American, Asian, Latino, and Arabic populations. Over the last three years, I have expanded my research into studies to identify molecular biomarkers that can detect individuals at risk for cancers and to conduct interventions in such individuals.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
My overarching research goal is to integrate traditional epidemiologic methods with the ever-advancing molecular and omic techniques in cancer research to identify risk factors and molecular markers that may serve as tools for disease prediction and prevention.
How is your research funded?
My research has been funded by both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
What types of partnerships are you engaged in across campus and beyond?
The nature of my research requires collaborations with scientist in different fields. At Northwestern I have developed numerous collaborations within Feinberg and with faculty members on the Evanston campus.
For example, I collaborate with Vadim Backman, PhD, in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science to study pancreatic cancer early detection biomarkers using the technology invented by Dr. Backman.
I have also developed collaborations with investigators from other prestigious universities in the US, such as Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the University of Chicago. Furthermore, I have collaborated internationally with researchers in Europe, China, and the Middle East, including investigators at the University of Aberdeen in the UK, the University of Milan in Italy, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, and Fudan University in China.
Who makes up your research team?
My research team includes PhD students, master’s students, postdoctoral fellows, international visiting scholars, and global health exchange students. We also recruit high school students and master’s students interested in epidemiological research for internships. Each team member brings unique ideas and expertise to the research. They also receive hands-on research training in the design and conduct of population-based studies, including generating research ideas and hypotheses, measuring biomarkers using laboratory techniques, conducting field visits, analysis of ‘omic,’ informatic, and epidemiological data, manuscript preparation, data interpretation, and grant writing.