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After a 42-year career linking genetics to cancers, Joan Bailey-Wilson retires

With nearly 30 years at the National Human Genome Research Institute, her research shifted the view of how genetics contributes to cancers.

As a child, Joan Bailey-Wilson, Ph.D., was inspired by Marie Curie and a first-grade science experiment to become a scientist. What started as an interest in biology in college turned into a successful 42-year career as a statistical geneticist, spending the last 27 years at the National Human Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, she helped untangle the intricacies of genetic inheritance of multiple cancers and, in some instances, helped clinicians predict individuals at very high risk of carcinoid tumors. 

As one of the first in her family to go to college, Dr. Bailey-Wilson recalls the difficulties of navigating the academic world. But with the guidance of supportive mentors, she earned her doctorate in medical genetics with a minor in biomathematics from Indiana University and embarked on a scientific journey to discover genes that play a role in specific diseases.  

Dr. Bailey-Wilson's remarkable achievements include identifying numerous genes and genomic variants that confer risk for lung cancer and prostate cancer at a time when few scientists believed there were genetic links to these diseases. She and her team harnessed the power of statistics and computational techniques to show that genetics contributed to these cancers, rather than environmental factors or by chance. The group quickly embraced new DNA-sequencing technologies and, when current methods weren’t sufficient, they developed new computational approaches. In addition to her work in the cancer field, Dr. Bailey-Wilson also helped unravel some of the risk factors for eye diseases, inflammatory bowel disease and cleft lip and palate.  

In conversation with science writer Sonja Soo, Ph.D., Dr. Bailey-Wilson looks back on her over 40-year career as a scientist and reflects on the rapid growth of the genomics field. 

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Sonja Soo: What inspired you to become a scientist?


Joan Bailey-Wilson: The first time I remember thinking I really loved science was when I was in the first grade. I did a demonstration for the parents that had a hot plate with boiling water on it. I held a pan of ice up above the steam, and it condensed and rained. It was so cool!


I was also really inspired by Marie Curie. There were not a lot of women role models in the 1960s. She was an amazing scientist. She was married, and she was a mom. I thought, “If Marie Curie could do it, I can do it.”


My parents were incredibly supportive and sacrificed so that my sister and I could get a good education. I wouldn’t be here without federal student loans and scholarships, too. Education is something nobody can take away from you. It’s an investment in yourself and in your future.

Soo: How did you decide to study genetics, and specifically statistical genetics?  


Bailey-Wilson: In college, we had a short course that was specifically about human genetics, and we visited a chromosome lab at Johns Hopkins and institutions that took care of people with genetic conditions. I thought to myself, “This is what I want to do.”  


I approached my professor, Jean Kerschner, and asked if I could do my senior research project with her, and she was a guide to me throughout college and in my applications to graduate school.  


When I was taking all my genetics classes, the parts I liked best were the statistical parts of it — the gene discovery part. 

Soo: What were some of the projects that you’re most proud of?


Bailey-Wilson: Early in my career, I was involved in breast cancer risk modeling that led to Mary-Claire King discovering the BRCA1 gene. I also worked with Henry Lynch to find genes associated with colorectal cancer.


At the time, there was huge controversy on the existence of genes that contributed to breast cancer and colorectal cancer. In the 1970s and 1980s, many people argued that cancer was completely environmental. But for families with colorectal cancer, the cancer was early onset, and the cancer appeared to be transmitted down through the generations. Some people believed it wasn’t genetics, but we had statistical evidence to show that there was no way that a purely environmental or random model could explain what we were seeing.


One of my lifelong studies ended up being lung cancer. My team collaborated with Henry Rothschild to find that, if you accounted for smoking and known environmental risk factors, there was still increased familial risk, which was groundbreaking. Later, we invented new methods that would allow us to include environmental risk factors in our genetic analyses. Since then, we've identified several different candidate genes that we believe are important for lung cancer. We’ve learned so much about lung cancer during my career.

Soo: Were there any pivotal moments in your research career?


Bailey-Wilson: There’s a rare cancer of the upper intestinal tract called a carcinoid tumor. It’s hard to clinically diagnose, and most people are not diagnosed until it has metastasized. My collaborator at National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Stephen Wank, identified families that had a high frequency of this rare cancer. We identified the first gene to cause carcinoid tumors in one family we studied. What was truly exciting was that we could predict the carriers of the high-risk genetic variant, diagnose and remove their tumors at a very early stage, and thus save their lives.


It was the best thing I ever did. And it’s why I became a geneticist. Now, for many cancers, clinicians can test individuals with cancer to see if they carry a gene associated with that cancer and possibly even identify the best treatment options based on those mutations.


All the technological developments in genetics and genomics over my career have made huge changes in the kind of medicine that is being practiced in the clinic today.

Soo: What’s the next step for you?


Bailey-Wilson: I'm excited to work fewer hours, spend time with my family and do some traveling! I’ll still be at the NIH as a Scientist Emeritus and actively involved in several studies. I’m excited to continue to work with my collaborators and younger scientists.


It's been a wonderful time at NHGRI. And as a branch chief, I've enjoyed working with the other faculty so much; they are such fabulous faculty members and wonderful colleagues. It’s been a joy mentoring all my trainees. I'm glad that I get to continue being a part of the exciting research. Much of today’s genetics and genomics was in the realm of science fiction when I started my career, and I am so happy that I helped to make some of that science fiction into reality.

Last updated: November 3, 2022