Arthur Schatzkin, NIH expert on diet and cancer, dies at 62

Arthur Schatzkin, a National Institutes of Health scientist.
Arthur Schatzkin, a National Institutes of Health scientist. (Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 10:32 PM

Arthur Schatzkin, a National Institutes of Health scientist who was internationally known for his efforts to investigate the role of food and diet in causing cancer, died Jan. 20 at his home in Chevy Chase. He was 62 and had glioblastoma multiforme, a type of brain cancer.

Dr. Schatzkin had worked since 1984 at the National Cancer Institute and had been chief of the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch since 1999. He was the author or co-author of more than 300 research publications.

Early in his career, he studied links between alcohol intake and breast cancer. He went on to lead a landmark National Cancer Institute study that challenged prevailing wisdom about the connections between fiber and colon cancer.

Scientists have long thought that people who eat low-fiber diets are more likely to contract colorectal cancer than those with high-fiber intake. But results from the four-year Polyp Prevention Trial, led by Dr. Schatzkin during the 1990s, showed no discernible relationship between subjects' fiber intake and the number of precancerous polyps they developed.

The study was not a definitive answer to questions about the links between fiber and colon cancer. But "it made people rethink the whole fiber hypothesis" and consider other possible influences, said Rashmi Sinha, who worked with Dr. Schatzkin for more than a decade at the institute.

Dr. Schatzkin also was the principal investigator for one of the largest-ever studies of diet and lifestyle, a survey of about 500,000 senior citizens begun in the mid-1990s. Known as the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, the ongoing research has been particularly valuable as a source of information about rare cancers. It has yielded data used by scientists to produce more than 100 journal articles.

In recent years, Dr. Schatzkin had been working to devise new and more accurate methods of conducting nutrition studies, which often rely on participants to record or recall what they have eaten.

Without more precise measurement tools, he argued, scientists cannot be certain that studies are reflecting the real relationship between diet and cancer.

"That's the problem," he told the New York Times in 2005. "We just don't know."

Arthur Gould Schatzkin was born Feb. 11, 1948, in New York. He graduated from Yale University in 1969 and received a medical degree from the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine in 1976. He later received a master's degree and doctorate in public health from Columbia University.

Early in his career, he was an assistant professor of public health and medicine at Boston University.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Tamara Harris Schatzkin of Chevy Chase, who is a section chief of geriatric epidemiology at the National Institute on Aging; two children, Eric Schatzkin of Chevy Chase and Rebecca Schatzkin of Philadelphia; a sister; and a brother.

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