Baylor Researcher Earns $480,000 Career Development Award from Department of Defense
Leigh Greathouse, Ph.D., human sciences and design faculty and cancer survivor, to study link between diet and colon cancer treatment
By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing & Communications
WACO, Texas (Aug. 10, 2020) – Leigh Greathouse, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the relationship between diet, the microbiome, disease and health at Baylor University, has been awarded a prestigious Career Development Award from the Department of Defense (DoD) to study the link between diet and colon cancer treatment and search for breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of Chemotherapy-Induced Diarrhea (CID), a challenging side effect for many colon cancer patients.
The Department of Defense provides Career Development Awards to top early-career faculty whose research improves mission readiness and quality of life by decreasing the burden of cancer on service members, their families and the American public. Valued at $480,569, the grant will enable Greathouse to collect large-scale dietary and cancer treatment data from enrolled colon cancer patients and utilize artificial intelligence methods to identify signs of CID susceptibility.
Greathouse, assistant professor of human sciences and design (formerly family and consumer sciences) in Baylor's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, will seek to pioneer understanding of CID biomarkers, none of which are currently known.
"Our goal is to identify bacteria in the gut and dietary factors that are predictive biomarkers of CID," Greathouse said. "On top of that, we're seeking to identify the mechanisms and bacteria that are potentially causative of CID—how does what you eat prior to starting chemotherapy affect the bacteria that live in your gut, and how do those bacteria predict your response to chemotherapy?"
Approximately 50 percent of all colon cancer patients suffer from CID, a condition that can negatively impact their battle with the disease, reduce quality of life and even be fatal. Severe CID can force a stoppage in chemotherapy, which can extend the length of treatment, while others must lower their chemo dosage and potentially reduce its effectiveness. Many patients continue to suffer GI complications long after remission.
"There are really no tools to collect dietary data from people going through chemotherapy. You can imagine, on a day-to-day basis, a patient's diet changes depending on how well they feel or don't feel," Greathouse said, "We're going to be piloting that in this study. From there, we will analyze dietary data to search for trends that might be associated with the prevalence or severity of Chemotherapy-Induced Diarrhea, response to treatment and long-term gastrointestinal symptoms."
The fight against cancer is personal for Greathouse, who at the age of 24 was diagnosed with stage-four uterine leiomyosarcoma. Lingering gastrointestinal issues, even after she was declared cancer-free, led to continued illness and discomfort that eventually led to a new calling.
"I noticed that when I changed from eating 'comfort food' to food I knew was healthy and anti-inflammatory, I had a dramatic improvement in my energy," Greathouse said. "This really drove home the importance of diet in response to cancer therapy. Also, my long-term battle with GI issues after my cancer treatment was over really focused my attention on preventing and alleviating GI issues during and after cancer treatment."
The DoD grant will enable Greathouse to enroll and collect data from over 100 patients with stage-two or stage-three colon cancer, in partnership with the Baylor Scott & White McClinton Cancer Center in Waco and Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Temple. On the project, she will work with Baylor research mentors Touradj Solouki, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, and Ramon Lavado, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science, and hematologic oncologist Lucas Wong, M.D., at Baylor Scott & White.
Greathouse and her research team will collect data from patients on their dietary intake, analyze data on microbes in their gut at the time of diagnosis, and collect dietary intake and gut bacteria from stool samples for analysis throughout chemotherapy. In partnership with longtime collaborator Jun Chen, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic, Greathouse will utilize machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence, to analyze the data and develop algorithms to identify biomarkers or predictive biomarkers that can help clinicians and patients better treat and manage colon cancer therapy.
"I'm most intrigued to understand this— if how you've been eating over the past year affects how you respond to treatment, because there are indications that it should," Greathouse said. "Right now, there's very little evidence and very little data to help dietitians understand the impact of diet on treatment. It would be very meaningful to find that out, and to be able to help patients eat in such a way to help them respond better to treatment."
Greathouse pursued a career in the emerging study of diet, the microbiome and disease, receiving her Masters of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, a Ph.D. from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and serving as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. She joined the Baylor faculty in 2015 and established the Laboratory of Health and Human Behavior to conduct groundbreaking research into microbiome and cancer.
External funding grants like Greathouse's Career Development Award accelerate Baylor University's pursuit of preeminence as a Christian Research University and R1 research status. In 2018, Baylor announced the adoption of Illuminate, a strategic plan that serves as a roadmap towards research preeminence through the purposeful pursuit of research "marked by quality, visibility and impact."
"The work of Dr. Greathouse is novel, and will advance and discover new science. It is quintessential in understanding how diet can influence disease outcomes and treatment, and this work will help to create better quality of life in cancer patients," said Rodney Bowden, Ph.D., dean of Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, professor of health education and Brown Foundation Endowed Chair.
"Dr. Greathouse is a gifted scientist, and we are grateful that others have noticed her ability to answer very important questions," he said. "Her work also helps to advance Baylor to R1 status and supports Illuminate. The collaborative work in which Dr. Greathouse is engaged represents what we are trying to achieve in Robbins College."
Greathouse said she has seen the University's increased research focus, codified in Illuminate, grow a culture of collaborative research that leads to breakthroughs.
"Having the option to collaborate with multiple people around campus who do a variety of work is very helpful for my research, because it gives me a lot of strengths that I can pull from that I don't necessarily have myself," Greathouse said. "Awards like the career grant are critical to demonstrate that and put Baylor on the map nationally—we have the resources and the talent to execute and address important issues."
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 18,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT ROBBINS COLLEGE OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
The Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences at Baylor University was established in 2014, a result of identified priorities for strengthening the health sciences through Baylor's strategic vision, Pro Futuris, and the University's Illuminate strategic plan. The anchor academic units that form Robbins College – Communication Sciences and Disorders; Human Sciences and Design (formerly Family and Consumer Sciences); Health, Human Performance and Recreation; Public Health; and Division of Health Professions – share a common purpose: improving health and quality of life. The College's curricula promotes a team-based approach to transformational education and research that has established interdisciplinary research collaborations to advance solutions for improving quality of life for individuals, families and communities. For more information, visit baylor.edu/chhs.