In this spotlight, we talked to Dr. Eric Grant, the Associate Chief of Research at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in Hiroshima, Japan.
His published article, Bioavailable serum estradiol may alter radiation risk of postmenopausal breast cancer: a nested case-control study, can be read here.
Why is this article important?
Because of its implications regarding the systemic effects of whole-body exposure to ionizing radiation. We know the direct damage that radiation causes in DNA, damage that results in increased rates of cancers. In a previous study, we found that exposure to ionizing radiation affected the levels of serum sex hormones in women who had not experienced cancer—evidence of a systemic effect. In this study we assessed the risks of radiation exposure for breast cancer through both of these pathways: both direct DNA damage and systemic changes.
This study’s exciting design is rare in that it requires historical blood samples and long-term follow-up. There are not too many cohorts in the world that can conduct such a study. Despite our large cohort, this study was small—only 57 cases and 110 controls. Therefore, while the results are intriguing, we must remember that the study conclusions should be interpreted with caution.
How and/or when did you get into this field of study radiation epidemiology?
I was born in the Midwest of the U.S.A. After earning a BSEE from the University of Michigan, I happened to visit my Dad who was living in Japan working on a joint venture in the late 1980s. While there, I met my future wife, and after moving back to the U.S., we started a family back in Ann Arbor. I worked as a research programmer and engineer for the University of Michigan Medical Center. By chance, my office was in the same small building as that of the former director of the ABCC/RERF, Dr. James Neel. In the late 1990s, I and my wife and young daughter moved to Japan to care for my wife’s ailing mother. On my behalf, Dr. Neel sent a fax to RERF on the off chance that I may be able to find work there. Soon, I was working for Drs. Dale Preston and Kiyohiko Mabuchi at RERF. Although my mother-in-law recovered, we decided to stay in Hiroshima “for a few years.”
Learning under the likes of Drs. Don Pierce, Dale Preston, Yukiko Shimizu and other talented scientists, I picked up skills in epidemiology and biostatistics. The “Radiation Partnership Program,” designed to train young researchers in the field of radiation epidemiology, coincidentally started at a time I had already decided to go back to school to obtain a doctorate. My family (now numbering four) moved to Seattle in 2005 (I was 44–so much for the program being designed for “young” researchers) to earn my Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of Washington under the tutelage of Dr. Scott Davis. My thesis committee included Dr. Davis as well as Dr. Kenneth Kopecky, who had both worked for RERF in the 1980s.
After returning to RERF, I worked in the Epidemiology Department and was eventually promoted to RERF’s Associate Chief of Research in 2016, with the help and support of RERF’s directors Dr. Ohtsura Niwa, Dr. Robert Ullrich, and Dr. Kazunori Kodama. I now spend too much of my days working on administrative tasks and not enough time squeezing in research.
Where do you see your field in the next 5 or 10 years?
For our cohorts, I see greater integration of the epidemiological, clinical, and molecular aspects of our research. We have many experts under one roof, but too often our research is narrowly, rather than holistically, focused. In another vein, I see RERF providing more opportunities for the training of younger researchers. Our data will provide opportunities for research long into the future. I hope your readers will recognize this potential and seek out those opportunities.
Is there any particular article you published that launched your career? Did it lead to recognition/funding/promotion etc?
When I first got to RERF, I always admired the “big” papers written by the likes of Drs. Don Pierce, Yukiko Shimizu, Dale Preston, and others. I wondered what it would be like to finally get a chance to write one of those. I consider my first big paper to be a mortality follow-up paper on the children of the atomic bomb survivors (Grant EJ, Furukawa K, Sakata R, Sugiyama H, Sadakane A, Takahashi I, et al. Risk of death among children of atomic bomb survivors after 62 years of follow-up: a cohort study. Lancet Oncol.; 2015;16(13):1316). About a year later, I got my second big chance with a major paper on the cancer incidence follow-up of the atomic bomb survivors (Grant EJ, Brenner A, Sugiyama H, Sakata R, Sadakane A, Utada M, et al. Solid Cancer Incidence among the Life Span Study of Atomic Bomb Survivors: 1958-2009. Radiat Res. 2017;187(5):513-537). Those papers have produced invitations to speak at various meetings and have made a difference in my career. I did not do anything particularly special: it was just a matter of waiting my turn and getting things done when they needed to get done. Being lucky enough to get hired at RERF was the first step in my satisfying career.
Do you have any advice for Postdoctoral Researchers?
Do not be discouraged if you find yourself getting older but have not yet found your niche. I started late in my field of research but somehow it has worked out.