Alumni Life

In the Genes

A rising researcher addresses health disparities from the inside out

Candace Middlebrooks

Candace Middlebrooks at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Photo: James Kegley

By Elizabeth Gehrman

Most kids see the movie “Jurassic Park” as an exciting, if scary, fantasy. Candace Middlebrooks (MS ’07) saw it as inspiration.

“I thought that would be the coolest thing in the world,” she says, “to learn to do what they were doing in that movie.”

Middlebrooks, 34, had already figured out by age 6 that she wanted to be a scientist, so, to be fair, Steven Spielberg wasn’t her only influence. Her parents stoked an interest early on, doing chemistry experiments with her and tuning the family TV to National Geographic. And today, while she’s not quite ready to hatch dinosaurs from amber-trapped DNA, she is bringing to light some pretty big things in her work as a postdoctoral fellow in computational and statistical human genetics at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.

These days, she’s helping to unravel a mystery concerning sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that, in the U.S., disproportionately affects people of African ancestry—and, says Middlebrooks, has received relatively little attention from the scientific community.

“There’s just not as much research on sickle cell disease as we would hope,” she says. “We know the main cause of the disease but not what causes all these other traits that often go with it, like stroke, pain crisis, cardiac complications.” Middlebrooks’ current project examines a part of the genome called the exome to tease out risk for leg ulcers, a common and debilitating effect of sickle cell. “We’re trying to see if natural bacteria on the body may be contributing,” she says. “I’m mainly focusing on the genetic risk for increases of certain bacterial growth on the skin.”

Her training in genetic epidemiology has allowed her to take on other sizable challenges. Her previous postdoc was at the National Cancer Institute, also in Bethesda. “If you can understand genetic analysis methods, you can apply them to any disease,” she says.

Her interest in sickle cell and cancer comes in part from those closest to her. Several of her relatives are carriers for sickle cell, and both prostate and colon cancer run in her family. When she learned through her graduate studies at UB that African-American men are genetically prone to prostate cancer, she went home and told her dad to get screened—but he wouldn’t. “Then my uncle ended up getting the disease and passed away from it,” she says. “Seeing that so close to home, I became interested in doing something about it.”

Reducing inequalities in health outcomes is a prime concern for Middlebrooks, who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side, where public health data show disparities abound. One factor compounding the problem, she notes, is the lack of trust in medical research that runs through many minority populations, often with good reason.

“Tuskegee,” she says with a sigh, referring to the infamous study on syphilis in which hundreds of African-American men were misled and mistreated. “Sad, horrible things have happened, and in some ways, people are justified in their fears. I think I’m good for this role because of my background. People can relate to me, and I’m good at understanding them.”

Middlebrooks’ passion for righting wrongs is already garnering accolades—and backing. This summer she was one of three recipients of the inaugural William G. Coleman Jr. Ph.D. Award from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

She looks forward to one day having her own lab, where she can decide on her own research questions and direct where the funding goes. Above all, she says, “I’m hoping I can restore the trust of minority populations in the scientific community.”