FEATURED INVESTIGATOR
WALTER WILLETT, MD, MPH, PHD

For the last two decades, Dr. Walter Willett has devoted his energies to research activities that center on the development of nutritional epidemiology. This effort required the creation and validation of new questionnaire and biochemical methods to assess dietary intake in large populations. Over the past two decades, these methods have been used in three large prospective studies comprising 250,000 men and women: Nurses’ Health Study I, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study. Dr. Willett, who began his interest in nutrition as an undergraduate majoring in food science, pursued what he thought at the time would be an incredible opportunity to examine what people ate and determine how diet might relate to the future risk of cancer and other disease. Although the original focus of the Nurses’ Study was quite narrow, concentrating on smoking and oral contraceptives, the study broadened immensely over time to include lifestyle and other biologic factors. The impact of these factors on study participants was then assessed and extrapolated more widely to the general public. Dr. Willett is the author of many professional papers and several books on nutrition and health, including “Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy,” now in its second edition. He has been a leading advocate of writing books that are readable, not only for physicians, but also for the general public, which he believes is genuinely interested in what he and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health have learned over the past twenty years. “Originally,” Dr. Willett relates, “we were just looking at the role of nutrition in breast cancer. Now we have methods to characterize cancers in greater detail, including identifying the genetic basis of a specific cancer. Cancers that appear to be homogenous may, in fact, have different mutations, albeit common causes. With more insight these cancers can be further characterized by their genetics, and their genetics can be correlated with nutritional epidemiology in an effort to understand the molecular connections between nutrition and the genetic aberrations that drive the development of cancer.”

Background

A native of Michigan, Dr. Willett attended Michigan State University and the University of Michigan Medical School. He received his M.P.H. from the Harvard School of Public Health and a Doctorate of Public Health in epidemiology. In 1970, he came to Boston to do an internship and residency on the Harvard Medical Service at Boston City Hospital. In 1979, he came to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital) to become a research fellow in medicine. During his postdoctoral fellowship, he worked with Dr. Frank Speizer at the Channing Laboratory and began to work on the storied Nurses’ Health study in 1983.

Laboratory

Dr. Willett’s laboratory is part of a larger group of several dozen faculty level researchers who are working on various aspects of the epidemiology of cancer and other diseases. The scope of this large complex epidemiologic study with thousands of study participants requires the aid of many research assistants, dieticians, computer programmers, doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows. Contact: walter.willett@channing.harvard.edu or dosulliv@hsph.harvard.edu

funding

Funding is principally derived through the National Institutes of Health. However, specialized funding from public and private sources like the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance and the Colon Foundation and Breast Cancer Foundation have been critical in forwarding this epidemiologic research.

Collaborations

Dr. Willett and his colleagues enjoy many close-knit associations locally, nationally, and internationally. They have numerous productive collaborations with colleagues within the Harvard Medical area as well as colleagues around the world. Many of these collaborators have joined forces with Dr. Willett’s group to form an international consortium involved in gathering and analyzing epidemiologic or demographic data worldwide.

Importance of Being at the Brigham

Dr. Willett explains, “There’s a great environment here. I think no one can work in isolation now. This is particularly true for us because we’re looking at so many different outcomes that we couldn’t possibly have the expertise to do all of this ourselves. We’re looking at rheumatologic diseases, arthritis, lupus, neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis, in addition to cancer. Some of the really best experts in each of these areas are next door at the Brigham. This is the truly the world’s best setting in which to do this kind of research.”

Selected References
  1. Rhee JJ, Cho E, Willett WC. Energy adjustment of nutrient intakes is preferable to adjustment using body weight and physical activity in epidemiological analyses. Public Health Nutr. 2013 May 23:1-7. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23701939.
  2. Lusk AC, Morency P, Miranda-Moreno LF, Willett WC, Dennerlein JT. Bicycle Guidelines and Crash Rates on Cycle Tracks in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2013 May 16. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23678920.
  3. Samieri C, Grodstein F, Rosner BA, Kang JH, Cook NR, Manson JE, Buring JE, Willett WC, Okereke OI. Mediterranean Diet and Cognitive Function in Older Age. Epidemiology. 2013 May 14. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23676264.
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