Faculty Profile: Peter Kanetsky, PhD, studies low penetrance genetic susceptibility to melanoma, focusing on candidate genes involved in pathways of pigmentationDECEMBER 14, 2007
Born and raised in Venice, FL, Peter Kanetsky spent a good deal of time outdoors during his formative years. He also enjoyed and excelled at math and science during his childhood and knew that he would pursue these interests in college. Peter began his undergraduate career at Cornell University as a chemical engineering major with a minor in biology. He switched to biochemistry as a major during his sophomore year. Peter had always been interested in biology, how the body works, and in studying health, but knew that he did not want to pursue a medical degree. In 1988, he graduated with a BA in biochemistry. Peter pursued his interests in health as a lab technician working on human papillomavirus and cervical dysplasia at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY. At the same time, he began taking graduate courses part-time. After two years working as a lab technician, Peter returned to school full-time, earning an MPH at the Columbia University School of Public Health in 1991.
Peter stayed in New York and resumed studying cervical dysplasia, this time as a project manager. The focus of this work – determining factors that could prevent disease or, if diagnosed early, could impact health decisions – further drew Peter into the field of epidemiology. Peter carried this work over into doctoral studies at Columbia University. His dissertation considered biomarkers, such as serum markers of vitamins, in cervical dysplasia. From 1992 to 1995, he was a National Cancer Institute (NCI) pre-doctoral trainee in the Cancer Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Environmental Health Sciences Training Program at Columbia and, in 1997, he received the Anna Gelman Award for Excellence in Epidemiology. He was awarded his PhD in epidemiology from Columbia in 1997. After defending his dissertation, a colleague left a flyer on his desk about Dr. Tim Rebbeck's genetic epidemiology group here at the CCEB. Dr. Kanetsky wasted no time, and became a post-doctoral fellow shortly thereafter and an Instructor in Epidemiology, Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology in the Penn SOM, in 1998. From 1998 to 2000, he was a post-doctoral fellow on a Cancer Clinical Epidemiology Training Grant. In 2001, he became a faculty member in the Biomedical Graduate Group in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology as well as a Senior Scholar in the CCEB. Presently, Dr. Kanetsky is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at HUP.
The fact that the genetics of sporadic melanoma is not well understood is of particular interest to Dr. Kanetsky and is the primary focus of his research. Specifically, he is considering low penetrance genetic susceptibility to melanoma. High penetrance or predisposing genes, those that indicate that individuals with the gene mutation have a very high probability of developing the condition under consideration, have been determined for melanoma arising within melanoma families (with three or more individuals diagnosed with melanoma). However, for the majority of the population, melanoma does not run in their family. Although a mutation in a high penetrance gene might increase risk several fold, the number of people carrying the gene mutation might be less than 1% of the population. In contrast, a polymorphism in a low penetrance gene might only increase risk by 30-40%, but 20% of the population might carry it. In his research, Dr. Kanetsky seeks to ferret out what the genetic risk factors for melanoma development in the general population might be. He states that it is important to look at gene–gene interactions as well as gene–environmental effects (e.g., melanoma and sun exposure). In particular, Dr. Kanetsky considers genes along three different pathways. Pigmentation is one of those pathways because melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment, are the ones from which melanoma arise. DNA repair of the cells damaged by UV exposure is also one of the important pathways under investigation. A third pathway of interest involves the body's immune system, which may modulate responses to developing or clearing the body of melanoma.
Dr. Kanetsky is also investigating low penetrance genetic susceptibility to testicular cancer. Although overall this is a rare cancer in men, it is the most common cancer affecting younger men, with peak incidence occurring before the age of 45. Very few genetic risk factors have been identified in this type of cancer, but it is associated with some of the highest familial risks.
As part of the CCEB's commitment to the Penn community at large, Dr. Kanetsky became involved in teaching students in the Penn SAS. In 2003, he developed and began teaching the basics of epidemiology to interested undergraduate students, mostly juniors and seniors majoring in Health and Societies. At the graduate level, Dr. Kanetsky teaches Advanced Methods in Epidemiology. In addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, Dr. Kanetsky has been a reviewer and member of the governing council of GenoMEL (the international Melanoma Genetics Consortium) since 2006. He is also a member of the American Association for Cancer Research, Society for Epidemiologic Research, and American Society of Preventive Oncology, for which he has spearheaded efforts to reintroduce educational training sessions to its membership during the local annual meetings.
Dr. Kanetsky has been the first or a contributing author of articles published in several peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Human Genetics, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Cancer Causes & Control, Cancer Detection and Prevention, Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers, and Prevention, Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer Research, Human Pathology, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Journal of Medical Genetics, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Pigment Cell Research, and Science. In addition, Dr. Kanetsky is a peer reviewer for several journals, including the British Journal of Dermatology, Cancer Detection and Prevention, Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, Cancer Research, Carcinogenesis, European Journal of Human Genetics, Genetics in Medicine, Human Genetics, International Journal of Epidemiology, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and Pigment Cell Research.
Dr. Kanetsky lives in Center City and tries to stay in shape by biking to and from work, weather permitting. The Florida native has also recently learned how to scuba dive after taking some introductory dives into the Red Sea. He was certified in open water while visiting Florida and he recently took his first recreational dive in Aruba. Dr. Kanetsky spends some of his spare time conducting genealogical research, and has uncovered some family gems. Several years ago, he discovered the burial site of his father's paternal grandmother, a woman who died before his father was born and whose story was lost with the death of Peter's paternal grandfather in the 70s. Upon visiting the cemetery, located in downtown Los Angeles and behind locked gates, Dr. Kanetsky saw a picture of his great grandmother – on the tombstone – for the first time.