Pharmacy’s Li recognized for work in cancer survivorship

Published: May 29, 2020
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Impacted by an uncle’s battle with cancer, Harrison School of Pharmacy graduate student Chao Li is investigating cancer treatments and working to identify ways to improve cancer survivorship. That passion was recently recognized as Li was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, Foundation.

The award, which is $25,000 per year for up to two years, provides support to promising students during advanced stages of training and thesis research and for the career development of scientists prepared to engage in health outcomes research.

Li’s dissertation is titled “Assessment of Risk and Risk Factors of Fluoropyrimidine-induced Cardiotoxicity Among Colorectal Cancer Survivors Using a Mixed-Methods Approach.”

Li’s uncle battled colorectal cancer, or CRC, eventually losing his battle, but not before saying to his nephew, “Living with a cancer is not easy.” His struggles with the disease left a lasting impact on Li.

“When my uncle told me this before he died of colorectal cancer, cancer survivorship became an important life question for me,” said Li. “I started to examine this area and found CRC is the third-most common cancer diagnosed and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths for both men and women in the United States. Meanwhile, colorectal cancer survivorship also leads to significant economic and humanistic burdens for patients and the society.”

Originally from China, Li came to Auburn to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry. His path to Auburn was the product of “chasing the dream to see a bigger world, to know more people and to experience a different culture.”

Upon completing his master’s degree at Auburn, Li was drawn to the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy for its application of science in real-world scenarios.

“My research interests were no longer satisfied by just the molecular world and wanted to explore more applications in the real world,” said Li. “Then, I found our program including the multidisciplinary research with real-world implications to improve patients’ health outcomes, medication safety and effectiveness and decided to further my studies in the program.”

In his dissertation research, Li is looking at fluoropyrimidines, a class of cancer-treating substances. Specifically, he is investigating side effects of the treatment, such as heart damage, that can lead to emergency room visits, hospitalization and even death.

“Identifying the risk and high risk factors of fluoropyrimidine-induced cardiotoxicity is very important for predicting the cancer patients’ health outcomes, evaluating aggressive chemotherapy and calling attention to close monitoring treatments and their side effects,” said Li. “In my dissertation, I will assess the risk and potential risk factors of fluoropyrimidine-induced cardiotoxicity among older colorectal patients and will use a machine-learning approach to develop risk prediction models for risk stratification of fluoropyrimidine-induced cardiotoxicity in older cancer patients.”

Li’s hope in studying this treatment and cancer survivorship on the whole is to improve health outcomes among those who do survive cancer. With early detection and innovative therapies, more people are surviving cancer, but are sometimes left with the side effects of treatment.

“Although cancer patients could survive after treatments, they are facing a wide range of medical and psychosocial challenges that need to be planned for and appropriately managed, so that their survivorship could be totally different,” said Li. “How to improve the cancer survivorship becomes more and more important for cancer patients nowadays, which calls attention across a growing number of disciplines, such as health care and service, health economics, pharmaceutical science, psychology and others.”

Along with his fellowship from the PhRMA Foundation, Li has also been recognized on campus as he was named one of the top 10 outstanding doctoral students at the university.

“Chao Li is an outstanding graduate student who always demonstrates curiosity in research and believes in hard work,” said Jingjing Qian, associate professor in the Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy and Li’s advisor. “He can work independently to investigate knowledge gaps and issues and eventually find solutions.”

Li has been inspired by the guidance from Qian, who specializes in comparative effectiveness and drug safety.

“Dr. Qian is an excellent advisor on both my research and life. In research, her wise guidance is like a light in the darkness, which always directs me to the right direction,” said Li. “She always advises me about not just limiting myself on research, but also enjoying life and serving others.”

Auburn University's Harrison School of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 percent of all pharmacy schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the School offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.) while also offering a master's in pharmaceutical sciences. For more information about the School, please call 334.844.8348 or visit the Harrison School of Pharmacy website.