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22 February 2019

Q&A with Dr Christine Friedenreich, incoming chairperson of the IARC Scientific Council

Dr Christine Friedenreich
Dr Christine Friedenreich

Dr Christine Friedenreich of Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary has been elected as the incoming chairperson of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Scientific Council.

“The chairperson of the IARC Scientific Council plays a key role in guiding the scientific governance of the Agency,” says IARC Director Dr Elisabete Weiderpass. “We are delighted to welcome Dr Christine Friedenreich as the new chairperson of the Scientific Council, given our long-standing collaboration.”

After her election, Dr Friedenreich answered some questions about IARC, the Scientific Council, and the Agency’s unique role in the fight against cancer.

Please tell us about yourself.

My name is Christine Friedenreich. I am the Scientific Director for the Department of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research of Cancer Control Alberta, Alberta Health Services, which is in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I’m also the Head of the Division of Preventive Oncology at the Department of Oncology at the University of Calgary. I am here at IARC in my role as the Canadian representative on the Scientific Council, and, as of next year, I will also be the chairperson of the Scientific Council.

I have been associated with the IARC since 1990. I was a postdoctoral fellow here for one year, in 1990–1991, and came back in 2004–2005 as the Senior Visiting Scientist at IARC.

Could you say a few words on the role of the Scientific Council in shaping IARC’s scientific activities?

The Scientific Council consists of members from each of the 26 Participating States that support the Agency’s mission. Our role is to review the science that is done at the Agency and to advise on the strategic directions and discussions that the Director has with her Senior Leadership Team. One of the specific activities that we do is to review IARC’s scientific Sections; each Section is reviewed every five years, and we evaluate the quality of the science as well as its relevance to the mission of the Agency.

What are IARC’s unique strengths in furthering cancer research around the world?

IARC, as the only international agency that is dedicated 100% to studying the causes of cancer and how it can be prevented, has a unique role in the world. For example, IARC facilitates cancer registration and cancer surveillance in all countries that are able to do so in the world, and the Agency is working to expand the number of countries that are able to implement cancer registration by helping them to establish their own cancer registries. IARC also keeps track of all the data on cancer incidence and mortality across the world, which is a unique role and strength that the Agency has.

The Agency is also able to coordinate research studies that are done in many different countries around the world and to pool all of those data together into large cohorts and consortia. IARC scientists conduct studies in some low- and middle-income countries where resource constraints limit the abilities of local scientists to do so. For example, IARC is running some very interesting studies in Africa and in Asia looking at some putative agents that are associated with cancer, as well as studies on intervention and screening programmes for those cancers.

IARC is able to do things that aren’t done by individual countries themselves, and IARC’s collaborative efforts, which often involve a lot of people from a number of different countries, bring some of the best scientists together to work on the international effort to control cancer.

Can you describe the importance of research on the links between obesity, the level of physical activity, and cancer?

One of the research foci for IARC has been looking at a number of factors that are involved in energy balance, including diet, physical activity, and, obviously, obesity.

The Agency recently published a Handbook of Cancer Prevention on the Absence of Excess Body Fatness. We know that there are many cancers that are associated with obesity and excess body fat. The risk of many of these cancers can be decreased.

IARC has also conducted a number of studies looking at dietary factors and physical activity. We know that both of these major lifestyle factors are associated with the risk of developing numerous cancers, so these are very interesting areas for the Agency to work on because it’s a means of actually reducing the risk of developing those cancers, as well as decreasing the global incidence of those cancers.

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