Rick Kittles, PhD, appointed director of new Division of Population Genetics at AHSC

Rick Kittles, PhD
Rick Kittles, PhD

Rick Kittles, PhD, a national leader on cancer health disparities and the role of genes and environment in disease, and a pioneer in DNA testing to trace the ancestry of African Americans, has been appointed director of the new Division of Population Genetics, part of the new Center for Applied Genetics at the Arizona Health Sciences Center at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Kittles also has been appointed professor in the Department of Surgery Division of Urology at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson with a joint appointment in the Division of Health Promotion Sciences at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. He also is a member of the University of Arizona Cancer Center and the center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program.

Dr. Kittles, who joined the UA July 7, is a National Institutes of Health-funded investigator whose research program and scientific expertise will support UA Health Sciences strategic initiatives in health disparities and precision health.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Kittles to the University of Arizona,” said Joe G.N. “Skip” Garcia, MD, UA senior vice president for health sciences and interim dean of the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. His leadership will be critical to our efforts to establish a multi-campus – Tucson and Phoenix – and statewide network focused on population genetics, cancer genomics and the reduction of health disparities,” Dr. Garcia added. “As director of the new Division of Population Genetics, Dr. Kittles will provide critical leadership in our efforts to advance precision health approaches to population health outcomes, the development of personalized diagnostics and therapeutics in complex diseases, and the development of well-phenotyped racially and ethnically diverse patient groups for genomic study.”

“We are excited to have Rick Kittles join the urology division in the University of Arizona Department of Surgery,” said Leigh A. Neumayer, MD, MS, head of the UA Department of Surgery and the UA Cancer Center’s Margaret E. and Fenton L. Maynard Endowed Chair in Breast Cancer Research. “With his depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in genetics and its role in prostate cancer, Dr. Kittles will lead research that will translate into precision medicine with personalized treatments designed to benefit each of our patients.”

“These are very exciting times at the Arizona Health Sciences Center and I am extremely honored to be able to work with such talented researchers, clinicians, students and staff,” Dr. Kittles said. “The commitment to precision health crosses multiple disciplines, programs and communities and each of us will be challenged to help bring the vision to reality at AHSC. In terms of medicine, we recognize more and more that one size does not fit all. Many variables play a role in effective risk assessment, drug response and treatment outcomes across different populations. The Division of Population Genetics will provide important genomic information from populations AHSC serves.”

The Division of Population Genetics will focus on the role genetic variation plays in precision health – using an individual’s genetic profile to guide decisions regarding prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease. The division is tasked with assessing genomic variation in diverse populations and communities across the state to help develop more focused and translational risk assessments, therapeutics and interventions.

The division is one of several planned focus areas within the Center for Applied Genetics (CAG), a collaborative effort between AHSC and the University of Arizona Health Network. Headed by Interim Director Kenneth S. Ramos, MD, PhD, PharmB, AHSC associate vice president for precision health sciences, CAG will serve as the primary home for campus-wide applied clinical genomic services, with anticipated focus in the areas of cardiovascular medicine, medical genetics and genetic counseling, diabetes and related metabolic disorders, oncology, pharmacogenetics, population genetics and pulmonary medicine. Nathan A. Ellis, PhD, a recently recruited cancer geneticist and national leader in colon cancer genetics, will serve as director of the Division of Cancer Genetics within CAG, with a leadership role also within the UA Cancer Center. Under the auspices of CAG, health-care providers, genetic counselors and researchers work collaboratively to advance the implementation of precision health approaches for the diagnosis, prediction and treatment of diseases and improvements in patient care and outcomes, and the reduction of health-care costs. Special emphasis is being given to the identification of rare genetic variants that define disease susceptibility or response to treatment and to the application of genomic science to minimize health disparities.

Dr. Kittles’ research interests include prostate cancer risk and the role of genes and environment. His work on understanding the role of vitamin D in aggressive prostate cancer may lead to better treatments and prevention. His laboratory is focused on identifying genetic and environmental contributions to cancer risk and treatment outcomes, including understanding the complex issues surrounding race, genetic ancestry and health disparities.

He has a strong commitment to mentoring students in his laboratory, including high school and undergraduate students; graduate, medical and post-baccalaureate students; and post-doctoral fellows and residents.

Prior to joining the UA, Dr. Kittles was with the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was director of the Institute of Human Genetics; associate director of the Office of Health Equity at the University of Illinois Cancer Center; and associate professor in the Department of Medicine and Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health. He also was associate director for diversity and community relations with the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center and held appointments with the Department of Human Genetics and the Graduate Committee on Cancer Biology Program, Biological Sciences Division, and with the Department of Medicine, Section of Genetic Medicine, The University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

He has been principal investigator on studies of prostate, breast and colon cancer; vitamin D; and acute chest syndrome, funded by the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Dr. Kittles is a co-founder of the company, African Ancestry, Inc., a world leader in tracing maternal and paternal lineages of African descent. His work has been featured in CNN’s “Black in America” series about African American genealogy; the PBS documentary, “Oprah’s Roots: An African American Lives Special;” the PBS documentaries, “AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIVES” and AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIVES 2;” the BBC Television documentaries, “Motherland: A Genetic Journey” and “Motherland – Moving On;” and in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview about genetic ancestry by Leslie Stahl.

He has been an invited lecturer at conferences and institutions, both nationally and internationally, and has served on numerous peer-review panels, including the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Environmental Health Science, National Human Genome Research Institute and Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program in Prostate Cancer. He is a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including theGrio’s “100 Making History Today, Class of 2013”; the 2012 Black History Maker Award from the University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Blacks; Ebony magazine’s 2010 “Power 100”; the 2008 Genetic Research Excellence Award, one of The Prostate Net® “In the Know Awards,” recognizing efforts to eliminate health disparities; the Gondobay Manga Foundation’s 2009 Chairman’s Honoree; the 2009 American Scholars Inaugural Ball Honoree; and N’DIGO magazine’s 2009 N’Medicine Award. In March 2012, he delivered the keynote address at the United Nations General Assembly’s “International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”

In April, Dr. Kittles received the Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater, Rochester Institute of Technology, and was the 2014 commencement speaker for RIT’s College of Science in May.

He also has served as co-chair and a member of the Scientific Program Committee for the AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) conferences on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved. In addition, Dr. Kittles has served on the National Cancer Institute U54 Program Steering Committee for the Meharry Medical College/Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Partnership.

Dr. Kittles’ professional memberships include the American Society of Human Genetics, American Public Health Association and American Association of Cancer Research. He also is a member of the Rochester Institute of Technology President’s Roundtable and the Minorities in Cancer Research Council of the American Association for Cancer Research.

He is author of more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and several book chapters. He is an editorial board member for Cancer Research, guest editor for Prostate Cancer, and reviewer for numerous other biomedical research journals.

Dr. Kittles received a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1989; a doctorate in biological sciences (major fields of study: population genetics, systematics and evolution and biological anthropology) from George Washington University, Washington, D.C., in 1998; and was a Human Genome Research Associate/ Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health and at Howard University College of Medicine from 1998-1999.

- Jean Spinelli, Aug. 18, 2014