University of Chicago cancer specialist receives 2005 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant"

University of Chicago cancer specialist receives 2005 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant"

September 20, 2005

Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, MD, a professor in the departments of medicine and human genetics at the University of Chicago and director of the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago Hospitals, has been named a MacArthur Fellow for 2005. She will receive $500,000 in "no-strings-attached" support over the next five years under terms of the award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Olopade, 48, was selected for "translating findings on the molecular genetics of breast cancer in African and African-American women into innovative clinical practices in the United States and abroad."

"In bridging continents with her innovative research and service models," the foundation said, "Olopade is increasing the probability of improved outcomes for millions of women of African heritage at risk for cancer."

She joins 24 other recipients of the award this year in fields as diverse as documentary filmmaking and neurobiology, including Kevin M. Murphy, also from the University of Chicago, where he is a professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business. Nineteen current or former faculty at the University of Chicago have been named MacArthur Fellows.

As a scientist, Olopade has a special interest in women of African ancestry, who are at higher risk for the more aggressive breast cancer and more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age. She recently found that breast cancers in African women often produce a pattern of gene expression that is significantly different from that seen in Caucasians. Tumors of African women are more likely to originate from a different group of cells within the breast and are less likely to present the molecular targets that form the basis of many standard therapies.

As a clinician, her interests include finding and testing improved methods for prediction, prevention and early detection of cancer for moderate- and high-risk populations. In the Cancer Risk Clinic, which she started in 1992, Olopade coordinates preventive care and testing for healthy patients and their families who--because of genetics or family history--are at increased risk for cancer. The clinic also focuses on quality-of-life issues for young breast cancer patients, including concerns related to pregnancy, fertility, and employment.

Olopade is also one of four principal investigators in a large-scale, multi-year, cross-disciplinary effort, based at the University of Chicago and supported by the National Institutes of Health, to sort out the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to breast cancer. The study will look at the genes, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and social interactions of women in the United States and Africa and their relationship to breast cancer.

"Big thinking is what translates into big discovery," said James Madara, MD, dean of the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Division of Biological Sciences and vice president for the Medical Center at the University of Chicago. "Dr. Olopade's thinking has been precisely on this scale: a world- and genome-wide view of connections between African descent and one of the most dangerous and common cancers in women."

The MacArthur Foundation's criteria for the awards, popularly known as "genius grants," include exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment. The unusual level of independence afforded to the Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors.

"The new MacArthur Fellows illustrate our conviction that talented individuals, free to follow their insights and instincts, will make a difference in shaping the future," said Daniel J. Socolow, the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. "As individuals, each is highly focused, tenacious, and creative. As a group, the new MacArthur Fellows are bold and risk-taking people changing our landscape and advancing our possibilities."

Candidates are nominated, evaluated and selected through a rigorous and confidential process. There are no restrictions on how the award funds are used.

When she found out she had won, "I was stunned," Olopade said. She was just beginning a meeting with her research team when her cell phone rang. The caller asked her to call back as soon as she was alone. When she did, he explained about the prize, "and it just got nicer and nicer," she said. Then she had to go back to the lab, pretend nothing had happened and finish the meeting without spilling the news.

"This will make a big difference," Olopade said. "It will enable us to go back and forth from Nigeria much more often and to spread out into more countries. African genetics are so complex, so diverse. This will bring us a much bigger picture of the role of genetics, environment, and culture in this disease."

Olopade grew up in Nigeria, retains close ties with cancer specialists there, and returns frequently to teach, for research, and to visit. She received her MD in 1980 from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and served as a medical officer at the Nigerian Navy Hospital in Lagos. In 1986, she completed an internship and residency at the Cook County Hospital, in Chicago, and trained in hematology and oncology as a postdoctoral fellow (1987-1991) at the University of Chicago, where she has been on the faculty since 1991.

Olopade has received many honors including the University of Ibadan Sir Samuel Manuwa Gold Medal for Excellence in the Clinical Sciences in 1980, the Association for Brain Tumor Research/Ellen Ruth Lebow Fellowship in 1990, the American Society for Clinical Oncology Young Investigator Award in 1991, and the James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in 1992 and the Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award in 2000. In 2003, she received the "Phenomenal Woman Award" in recognition of her work within the African-American community. She received the Heroes in Healthcare award from the Access Community Network in 2005.

Olopade, known by friends and colleagues as Funmi (FOON-me), is married to Dr. Christopher Sola Olopade, a physician at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in the treatment of asthma and sleep disorders. They have three children and live near the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood.

As one of the nation's largest private philanthropic foundations, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded more than $3 billion in grants since it began operations in 1978. Today it has assets of approximately $5 billion. Through the support it provides, the Foundation fosters the development of new knowledge, nourishes individual creativity, strengthens institutions, participates in the formation of effective policy, and provides information to the public, primarily through support for public interest media. Annual grantmaking totals approximately $175 million. The Foundation is named for John D. MacArthur (1897-1978), who developed and owned Bankers Life and Casualty Company and other businesses, as well as considerable property in Florida and New York.