Professor David Whiteman is a medical epidemiologist with a special interest in the causes, control and prevention of cancer. He received his medical degree from the University of Queensland in 1991, and his PhD in cancer epidemiology in 1997. He was awarded a Nuffield Medical Research Fellowship to undertake post-doctoral training at the University of Oxford in cancer epidemiology. He returned to Brisbane in 2000, and now leads a large program of cancer research comprising national and international studies of melanoma and other cancers.
In addition to his research activities, he is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, a Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, a member of the Academy of the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) and currently Chairs the Barrett’s Neoplasia Guidelines Committee for the Cancer Council Australia and the Breast Cancer Risk Factors Working Group for Cancer Australia. In 2006, he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Current QIMR Berghofer appointments
- July 2016 – current: Deputy Director
- March 2017 – current: Senior Scientist
- 2009 – current: Group Leader
- 2009 – current: Lab Head
- January 2009 – current: NHMRC Principal Research Fellow
- 2010-2013: ARC Future Fellow (Senior Level)
- 2004-2009: NHMRC Senior Research Fellow
- 2000-2003: NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellow
- 1998-1999: Nuffield Medical Research Fellow, University Of Oxford, Oxford, UK
- 1997: Senior Registrar in Public Health Medicine, Queensland Health, Brisbane, Australia
ORCID number: 0000-0003-2563-9559
Researcher ID: P-2728-2014
Current Area of Research
I conduct research into cancers of the skin and gastrointestinal tract, and more recently in cancer control. To that end, I have pursued two parallel but complementary paths, focusing on discovering how environmental and genetic factors interact to cause cancer on the one hand, and then applying this knowledge to the prevention and control of disease on the other.
Currently, I lead the QSkin Study, the world’s largest prospective study of skin cancer with almost 44,000 participants. This cohort is measuring absolute and relative risks for basal and squamous cell carcinomas (BCC and SCC) and melanoma associated with phenotypic, lifestyle, clinical, and environmental factors, from which to build novel, valid decision tools for doctors and patients. The cohort is also measuring the impacts of protective behaviours and we are estimating the burden (mortality, costs, etc.) of skin cancer in Australia. In 2013, I was awarded a $3.4 million NHMRC project grant to collect DNA samples from 19,000 QSkin participants and perform a genome-wide association study – one of the largest studies of its type ever conducted in Australia.
I also study oesophageal cancer, and its premalignant precursor, Barrett’s oesophagus. These investigations continue through rewarding collaborations with national (PROBE-NET consortium) and international (BEACON consortium) investigators.
More recently, I have taken a broader interest in cancer control, using the data generated from epidemiological studies to develop estimates of cancer burden with a view to informing health policy. This work was commissioned originally by Cancer Council Australia, and has now expanded into a new program of work.
My research career has been largely devoted to the field of cancer control, particularly for cancers of the skin and recently, the oesophagus.
Melanoma and skin cancer
- Multiple causal pathways to melanoma: During my doctoral studies supervised by Adele Green, I observed that melanomas may be grouped according to the expression of the p53 tumour suppressor gene, and that p53 expression was associated with patterns of sun exposure. From these observations, I proposed the ‘divergent pathway hypothesis’ which proposed that sunlight’s role in causing melanoma differs depending upon host phenotype and the anatomic site of the target cell.
- Identified risk factors for childhood melanoma: I conducted the world’s first analytical studies of childhood melanoma, firstly documenting the incidence of these cancers before identifying causal factors.
- Defined the ‘critical period’ for sun exposure: By cataloguing melanoma incidence rates among migrants around the world, I showed conclusively that exposure to high levels of sunlight in childhood is strongly associated with cutaneous melanoma.
- Melanocyte responses to sunlight: With Elke Hacker, Nick Hayward and Michael Kimlin (QUT), we conducted clinical trials exposing human volunteers to solar simulated UV radiation, demonstrating that melanocytes proliferate in response to sunlight, and that this is blocked by sunscreen. We also identified a key role for the MC1R pigmentation gene in controlling the rate at which melanocytes proliferate.
- We recently published a detailed analysis of the melanoma epidemics that have occurred in European populations around the world, and showed that melanoma rates in Australia peaked in 2005 and are now declining.
- Using data from the QSkin study, we have developed risk prediction models of keratinocyte cancers (BCC and SCC), and for melanoma
- We showed that smoking doubles the risk of developing SCC of the skin, even after controlling for other causal factors, but does not increase the risk of BCC or melanoma
Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer
- Our population-based epidemiological studies of Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal adenocarcinoma demonstrated convincingly that obesity is a key risk factors for these conditions.
- We also showed that smoking has very different effects on oesophageal adenocarcinoma and oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma.
- Our analyses confirmed that aspirin and NSAIDs reduce the risk of oesophageal adenocarcinoma, as does infection with Helicobacter pylori.
Preventable fractions of cancer
- In 2015, we published a landmark series of 14 papers that estimated the burden of cancers in Australia that are due to modifiable factors.
- Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences
- Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine
- National Association of NHMRC Research Fellows
- Australasian Epidemiological Association
- 2016: Honorary Fellow, Skin Cancer College Australasia
- 2015: Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences
- 2013: NHMRC Principal Research Fellow
- 2011: Bancroft Medal – service to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research
- 2009: ARC Future Fellow (senior level)
- 2008: NHMRC ‘10 of the Best’ for Program Grant #199600 (with Adele Green and Penny Webb)
- 2006: American Society of Clinical Oncology Major Advance in Cancer Research
- 2006: Fulbright Senior Scholarship
- 2004: QIMR Annual Conference: Best Scientific Presentation
- 2004: Clive Berghofer Prize: Best Scientific Paper published by QIMR Faculty
- 2001: Australia Post Medical Research Fellowship: Royal Aust College of Physicians
- 2001: Young Tall Poppy Award: Aust. Institute of Political Science
- 1997: Nuffield Medical Research Fellowship: University of Oxford
- 1995: Australian Epidemiological Association Student Presentation Prize
- 1994: The John Earnshaw Scholarship (declined): Queensland Cancer Fund
- 1992: Trevor Taylor Research Prize: Royal Darwin Hospital
- 1987: Mayne Undergraduate Research Studentship: The University of Queensland
- 1986: William Nathaniel Robertson Scholarship: The University of Queensland
In addition to his research activities, Professor Whiteman is a member of the Academy of the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC), Chair of the Barrett’s Neoplasia Guidelines Committee for the Cancer Council Australia and Chair of the Breast Cancer Risk Factors Expert Reference Group for Cancer Australia. He serves on advisory committees for Cancer Council Australia and Cancer Council NSW. He previously chaired the Fellowships committee of the International Agency for Research on Cancer and served as a Member of Council of NHMRC, the NHMRC National Asbestos Research Working Group, NHMRC Privacy Working Group, NHMRC Strategic Research Development Committee and Cure Cancer Australia Foundation.
- 1998: Fellow, Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
- 1997: Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Queensland
- 1991: Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery (Hons), The University of Queensland
- 1988: Bachelor of Medical Science, The University of Queensland