Early career researcher explores potential links between infections, inflammation, and cancer
Marvin Langston, PhD, MPH, moved to the Bay Area in October 2019 to join the Division of Research as a University of California-Kaiser Permanente K12 Scholar in urologic epidemiology. He had just started to settle in when the COVID-19 pandemic turned everyone’s world upside down. Langston quickly adapted, and from his home in downtown Oakland he has been advancing his research on benign urological conditions and environmental and infectious causes of cancer.
Langston also studies racial/ethnic and sexual minority health disparities. His most recent research paper, “Epidemiology of the 2020 pandemic of COVID‐19 in the state of Georgia: Inadequate critical care resources and impact after 7 weeks of community spread,” was co-authored with a colleague at Augusta University at the Medical College of Georgia. The study, published in May in the Journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians, found that counties with large Black populations in rural areas of Georgia had notably fewer ICU beds and high death rates, providing an important example of how COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities.
What intrigued you about working at the Division of Research?
The data and the setting. The Division of Research has unmatched and unparalleled clinical data including biospecimen repositories and rich electronic medical records. I was fascinated by the idea of being in this integrated health system that would make it possible for me to do some really complex secondary data analyses. It was also important to me that Kaiser Permanente Northern California had such a diverse population. I am interested in doing work that focuses on ethnically diverse populations and sexual and gender minorities and this is a pretty unique place to do that.
Which research study are you most proud of?
I think every piece of research is almost like a baby, in a sense, so you don’t necessarily want to pick favorites. That said, I got into thinking about the nexus of infection and cancer because I had a family member who developed cervical cancer while I was beginning my epidemiology training. Her history with the human papillomavirus (HPV) got me thinking about infections and chronic illness and cancer, and I began to look at emerging hypotheses in different fields within cancer.
Prostate cancer quickly stood out because I found researchers who were thinking that certain sexually transmitted infections might be related to prostate inflammation and other prostate diseases including prostatitis and prostate cancer. This led me to get involved with a series of studies that used the Department of Defense Serum Repository to look at the effect of sexually transmitted infections on the prostate. These studies found a relationship between chlamydia and gonorrhea and markers of prostate inflammation. Initially, we only looked at infections that we knew might involve the prostate in their disease course. But when we broadened our scope we found surprising results for more generalized infections like infectious mononucleosis that aren’t necessarily known to involve the prostate but result in similar increases in inflammatory markers. This informed our thinking about how systemic infections may play a role in prostate cancer and other diseases.
What types of questions does Kaiser Permanente’s data allow you to ask?
The data has already allowed me to start looking at infections, inflammation, and prostate cancer. Another study we are about to embark on will look at inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease, and their relationship to prostate cancer. Other groups have shown some associations and it will be interesting to see if we also see this in our data.
I’m also doing an analysis of blood samples from Kaiser’s Multiphasic Health Checkup Cohort in collaboration with Stephen Francis, PhD, MS, at the University of California, San Francisco. We will do a total viral scan of the stored blood samples to look for associations between the prevalence of certain viruses and markers of inflammation. This is a novel approach because we will be looking at molecules secreted from cells that are found in the blood. This will allow us to capture viruses known to have signs and symptoms that can be identified by health care providers as well as those that are circulating in the blood but don’t have any known clinical manifestations.
What tips do you have for other early career researchers?
Get out and build collaborations outside of your primary research interest group as much as possible. These collaborations might help you generate novel ideas or methods that can apply to your work. Also, find ways to include medically underserved groups in your research. Not only will this broaden your research agenda, but it may make your work more impactful in the long run. Lastly, take good care of yourself during these troubling times. Find ways to build community with other early career researchers to identify best practices for boosting productivity and establishing an appropriate work/life balance.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a huge politico so I spend a lot of time watching the news and finding ways to promote the causes I believe in. I also like watching sports. I play a little tennis and enjoy going on hikes and being in the Bay Area is great for that. And, of course, there’s the Wine Country. I’m really enjoying myself here, both professionally at the Division of Research and also personally. It’s a great place to explore my interests.