COPH alum improves outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients

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USF College of Public Health (COPH) graduate Dr. Jennifer Blythe Permuth has devoted much of her career to the study of pancreatic cancer.

And the reasons are both professional and personal.

“I began my career as a genetic counselor, and I counseled numerous families affected by pancreatic cancer,” said Permuth. “I wanted to be able to offer them more in the realm of early detection and prevention. And on a personal basis, I witnessed my father being diagnosed with a pre-malignant pancreatic cyst in 2009. It was very scary. There are no tests to accurately differentiate cysts that need to be surgically removed and those that can be monitored.”

Permuth is now an assistant member and molecular epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in the departments of cancer epidemiology and gastrointestinal oncology.

Jennifer Permuth, PhD, MS. (Photo courtesy of Permuth)

Her time is primarily spent designing and conducting clinically relevant, transdisciplinary research.

“This research will help us develop and implement strategies to personalize care and improve health outcomes for those affected by, or who are at risk for, pancreatic cancer,” said Permuth, who notes that pancreatic cancer is the only malignancy for which the five-year relative survival rate is less than 10 percent.

Raised in the Midwest by two educators (her father is a former dean of USF’s College of Education), Permuth came to Tampa for her undergraduate work at USF. In 1999, she received a bachelor of science in biology as well as a bachelor of arts in Spanish. She traveled back to the Midwest to receive a master’s degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and genetics from the University of Minnesota. She returned to Tampa for her PhD in epidemiology from the USF COPH in 2010.

Permuth credits her genetic counseling job for sparking her interest in public health.

“My experience counseling families affected by cancer solidified my desire to make strides in the battle against some of the deadliest malignancies,” Permuth commented. “I turned to public health because I knew that my true interest involved learning how to design, conduct and analyze rigorous studies that could be translated to help the population.”

Permuth, first row, second from right, advocates on Capitol Hill to increase funding for pancreatic cancer. (Photo courtesy of Permuth) fffff

Permuth is not only a skilled researcher, she’s also an expert multitasker.

She’s had to be.

While pursuing her doctorate, she worked full time as a research administrator and data analyst at Moffitt.

She also became a new mom.

“I gave birth to my first son right before starting the doctoral program in the fall of 2005, and I had my second son after defending my dissertation proposal in the spring of 2009. I am indebted to my supportive mentors, colleagues, family, friends and the COPH for allowing me to attend school part time while balancing other roles and responsibilities.”

Permuth says she’s most proud of the work she’s done to establish a prospective, multi-institutional cohort study known as the Florida Pancreas Collaborative (FPC). It is the first statewide academic cancer center biorepository (a facility that collects, catalogs and stores biological matter) dedicated to advancing pancreatic cancer research.

“The FPC was co-founded in September of 2015 by myself and a few surgical colleagues because Florida ranks second in the number of pancreatic cancer deaths each year,” explained Permuth, who also received a $1.36 million grant from the Florida Department of Health to help address the racial and ethnic disparities involving pancreatic cancer that exist in Florida. This summer, with funding from the National Cancer Institute, she’ll begin work on developing a combined biomarker and imaging approach to aid in early-detection efforts for pancreatic cancer.

“Through these studies, we have an important opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of individuals affected by—or at risk for—pancreatic cancer, in our state and beyond, by improving diagnosis, survival, quality of life, health and equity, and by providing hope.”

Alumni Outtakes

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A teacher

Where can we find you on the weekends?

At a baseball field, watching my sons play.

What superpower would you like to have?

The power to make people follow the Golden Rule.

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health