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Toriola named Danforth WashU Physician-Scientist Scholar

Molecular cancer epidemiologist noted for pioneering research on breast cancer

by Kristina SauerweinOctober 14, 2022

Matt Miller

Adetunji T. Toriola, MD, PhD, a professor of surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been named a William H. Danforth Washington University Physician Scholar. He is the second physician-researcher named as part of the School of Medicine’s new Physician-Scientist Investigators Initiative, which supports pioneering physician-scientists whose work already has transformed their fields.

Toriola is a molecular cancer epidemiologist who joined the faculty in 2012. In addition to his physician training, he also received further training in public health with an emphasis in cancer epidemiology and prevention. As a public health scientist, Toriola is investigating ways to reduce the risk of premenopausal breast cancer and also colorectal cancer. He is a principal investigator on two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – one funds research to understand the molecular basis of breast density and the mechanisms by which dense breasts increase the risk of breast cancer; the other, a MERIT Award, supports a phase 2 clinical trial evaluating whether targeting a signaling pathway can reduce breast density and levels of biomarkers known to increase breast cancer risk.

Additionally, Toriola is a collaborator on a major multicenter study, also funded by NIH, that aims to enroll 5,000 patients, from diverse backgrounds, who are newly diagnosed with colorectal cancer to understand how lifestyle and other factors affect outcomes of the disease.

“Dr. Toriola’s appointment builds upon the School of Medicine’s legacy as home to some of the world’s most influential physician-scientists and our commitment to continuing in that purpose,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Dr. Toriola is bringing a public health science approach to the identification of key targets for prevention of breast cancer, one of the holy grails of the personalized medicine paradigm. I’m delighted that the Bill Danforth WashU Physician-Scientist Investigator Initiative will help support his exciting work.”

For his research, Toriola taps into his multidisciplinary medical training. In addition to a medical degree earned at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, his education included an advanced medical degree in anesthesiology from the West African College of Surgeons, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria; a master’s degree in public health from the University of Eastern Finland, in Kuopio, Finland; a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Tampere, in Tampere, Finland; and a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer epidemiology and prevention from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

Toriola has developed a research program characterizing the biological determinants of mammographic breast density and breast cancer. His research focuses on applying various omics approaches — metabolomics, transcriptomics, genomics, proteomics — to identify novel targetable markers and pathways that are associated with mammographic breast density and breast cancer development, especially in premenopausal women. His lab provided evidence that Receptor Activator of Nuclear Factor-κB Ligand (RANKL) signaling is positively associated with mammographic breast density. He also has established a platform to rapidly translate preclinical and clinical research findings into chemoprevention clinical trials in high-risk premenopausal women with dense breasts. In the phase 2 clinical trial he is leading, Toriola and his colleagues are investigating whether the antibody denosumab, which targets RANKL signaling, can reduce breast density in premenopausal women with dense breasts who are at high risk of breast cancer. If the treatment reduces breast density, it could open up additional approaches to breast cancer prevention in women who do not have a strong genetic predisposition.

Premenopausal women account for 25% of new breast cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S., said Timothy J. Eberlein, MD, director of Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, and senior associate dean for cancer programs at the School of Medicine.

“Dr. Toriola’s research fulfills a critical unmet need in premenopausal breast cancer prevention, given the limited number of chemoprevention options available,” said Eberlein, also the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “His research represents cutting-edge precision prevention research.”

A second aspect of Toriola’s research focuses on building unique clinical resources to discover novel biomarkers of risk, clinical outcomes, and response to treatment in patients with breast and colorectal cancers. As part of his work with colorectal cancer, he is one of several principal investigators on the ColoCare Study, an international consortium of seven leading cancer centers in the U.S. and Germany. The study collects detailed lifestyle, medical history and cancer treatment information as well as biospecimens from newly diagnosed colorectal cancer patients. The research aims to identify factors that influence prognosis, treatment toxicity and treatment response.

“Dr. Toriola is part of a bustling community of physician-scientists who are excelling and poised to advance their fields in innovative and profound ways,” said Wayne M. Yokoyama, MD, director of the Division of Physician-Scientists, the Sam J. Levin and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Arthritis Research, and an associate dean. “It is an exciting time to be a physician-scientist on the Washington University Medical Campus.”

The new physician-scientist initiative focuses on MD and MD/PhD researchers at the associate or full professor rank with an established track record of exceptional research contributions and funding. The School of Medicine has committed $40 million over the next decade to be used as part of highly competitive packages to support faculty. With seed funding from this commitment, the school’s clinical departments are aiming to attract and retain the most talented physician-scientists in the U.S. and abroad.

William H. Danforth, MD, who served as chancellor of Washington University from 1971 to 1995, was the inspiration for the initiative. Danforth was a cardiologist who joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1957 after training in medicine and pediatrics at what is now Barnes-Jewish Hospital, followed by St. Louis Children’s Hospital. He rose through the ranks at the School of Medicine before taking on administrative duties as vice chancellor for medical affairs. Along the way, he conducted basic research in the laboratory of Nobel laureates Carl and Gerty Cori. During his chancellorship, Washington University significantly expanded resources for scholarship and scientific discovery, and completed its transition from a local college to a national research university.

“It is a great honor to be named a William H. Danforth Physician Scholar and continue leading transformative breast cancer prevention research at the School of Medicine with its collaborative, creative and impressive community of physician-scientists,” Toriola said.

About Washington University School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,700 faculty. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the fourth largest among U.S. medical schools, has grown 54% in the last five years, and, together with institutional investment, WashU Medicine commits well over $1 billion annually to basic and clinical research innovation and training. Its faculty practice is consistently within the top five in the country, with more than 1,790 faculty physicians practicing at over 60 locations and who are also the medical staffs of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals of BJC HealthCare. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD training, recently dedicated $100 million to scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to top-notch training programs in every medical subspecialty as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communications sciences.

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for