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Richard Halberg

MADISON, Wis. — A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center was the only group of scientists in Wisconsin to receive a grant from a new National Cancer Institute program aimed at answering “provocative questions.”

Research scientist Richard Halberg, formerly of Princeton, oncologist William Schelman and surgeon Greg Kennedy will use a two-year $360,000 grant to investigate if there is a way to tell if non-malignant lesions found in a colonoscopy will progress to invasive or metastatic colorectal cancer.

The answer could help identify patients at higher risk for developing colon cancer at screening and could also reduce the need for aggressive treatment of such lesions if there is no risk of progression to cancer.

Halberg, Schelman and Kennedy received the grant under the new Provocative Questions initiative, which is designed to fund major unsolved or neglected problems in oncology. The NCI got 750 applications and awarded only 50 grants.

The UW Carbone Cancer Center study of non-malignant lesions found in colorectal-cancer screening is a nagging, important question that needs more attention, according to NCI director Harold Varmus.

“Not all lesions detected early are worth treating. But uncertainties about the behavior of a non-malignant lesion often lead to more aggressive treatment than may be warranted,” said Halberg.

The team noted that better understanding of lesions could help identify those with the potential to develop into invasive or metastatic cancer. Finally, the research could also help clinicians to communicate to patients the risks and benefits of treatment options.

Under Varmus’ leadership, the NCI created the Provocative Questions initiative, which identified 24 questions, which if answered, could lead to significant research advances. The NCI set aside $22 million to fund research on 20 of the questions.

Halberg is the son of Richard and Sandee Halberg of Princeton. He graduated from Princeton High School in 1983 and from the University of Iowa in 1988, majoring in chemistry and biology. He then attended Michigan State University where he received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1994. He worked in the cancer lab at the University of Wisconsin until he opened his own colon cancer research lab at the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin several years ago. He is an assistant professor at the School of Medicine. He and his wife, Sara, who received her Doctorate of Education in May 2012, have three children, Tim, Emily and Spencer. The family lives in Madison, Wis.

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