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NHGRI Names New Chief of Cancer Genetics Branch

Dr. Elaine Ostrander Will Lead Efforts to Understand Genetic Basis of Cancer

Elaine Ostrander

BETHESDA, Md., Wed., Nov. 10, 2004 - The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has named Elaine A. Ostrander, Ph.D., as the new chief of its Cancer Genetics Branc

h, one of the seven research branches in the Division of Intramural Research. In its short, 10-year history, the NHGRI Intramural Program has emerged as one of the premier research enterprises working to unravel the genetic basis of human disease.

"Dr. Ostrander brings a combination of expertise and vision in multiple areas of genetics, genomics and cancer biology to the Institute. Under her energetic leadership, the Cancer Genetics Branch will have unprecedented opportunities for elucidating the molecular underpinnings of cancer, and for developing new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for the care of cancer patients," said NHGRI Scientific Director Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Ostrander comes to NHGRI from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, where for more than a decade her laboratory has been a leader in mapping genes responsible for cancer susceptibility in dogs and humans. Cancer is the No. 1 killer of dogs, and the clinical presentation, histology and biology of many canine cancers closely parallel those of human malignancies. Consequently, comparative genetic studies of canine and human cancers should yield significant clinical benefits for both species.

In addition to their relatively high rate of cancer, dogs are an especially useful species for genetic studies because selective breeding has generated an extremely diverse range of breed types. Such diversity makes it easier for geneticists to identify the gene or gene combinations responsible for various traits, such as leg length, coat color and enhanced disease resistance. Conversely, this diversity also makes it easier for researchers to identify the genes responsible for susceptibility to cancer and other diseases. Many dog breeds result from a limited gene pool, and as a result have a high incidence of genetic diseases. This creates additional opportunities for researchers to zero in on gene(s) of interest for both human and canine health.

"Because human families are small, it's difficult to use them to discover the many genes involved in cancer. However, dog families, with their larger size, give us the advantage of being able to find many more of the genetic contributors to disease, particularly cancer," Dr. Ostrander said. "By using dogs as an animal model and comparing what we learn in them to what we know about human cancer, we are slowly but surely putting together the basic vocabulary of cancer susceptibility."

In addition to her canine research, Dr. Ostrander studies prostate and breast cancer susceptibility genes in humans. With other collaborators, she recently undertook a genome-wide scan for prostate cancer susceptibility genes. So far, this research has found that prostate cancer is genetically very diverse and that multiple genes are likely involved in its development and progression. She and her colleagues are now focusing their efforts on identifying candidate genes. Dr. Ostrander also is interested in studying the general population to learn more about the frequency and distribution of genetic mutations already known to increase cancer susceptibility in high-risk families. Her laboratory recently completed two large-scale screening studies looking for mutations in the two known breast cancer genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) in women with breast cancer to identify both protein-shortening and missense changes that are likely to be associated with cancer.

Dr. Ostrander's graduate and postdoctoral research concentrated on DNA structure. In 1991, she moved to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., where she began her efforts to create a map of the dog genome. In 1993, she moved to FHCRC, where she began a series of long-term collaborations with investigators from the FHCRC's Public Health Sciences Division. This work lead to an increased understanding of the role of genetic predisposition with regard to hormonally influenced cancers, such as breast cancer. At FHCRC, Dr. Ostrander held joint appointments at the Human Biology Division and Clinical Research Division, and she is an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, in both the Department of Genome Sciences at the School of Medicine and the Department of Biology at the College of Arts and Sciences.

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Dr. Ostrander received a B.S. in 1981 from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in 1987 from Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland. She has co-authored more than 100 peer-reviewed publications. More information on Dr. Ostrander's research, including a list of her recent publications, is available on the NHGRI Web site at:

A high-resolution portrait of Dr. Ostrander is available at:

NHGRI is one of the 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, which is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The NHGRI Division of Intramural Research develops and implements technology to understand, diagnose and treat genomic and genetic diseases. Additional information about NHGRI can be found at

Geoff Spencer
(301) 402-0911

Last updated: April 03, 2013