Alberta Cancer Foundation

Research Rockstar: Dr. Darren Brenner

Photo of Dr. Darren Brenner by Colin Way.

At just 36 years old, Dr. Darren Brenner is at a relatively early stage in his career, but he’s already accomplished a lot. Not only does he work as a molecular cancer epidemiologist and an assistant professor with the departments of oncology and community health sciences at the University of Calgary, he is also co-principal investigator in a nationwide data compilation, analysis and translation project called ComPARe. Brenner believes that data holds the key to increased screening and prevention options — our best bet for significantly reducing cancer diagnoses in the future.

As an epidemiologist, Brenner studies how often different diseases affect different groups of people and why. By determining which groups are affected, and how they are affected, scientists like Brenner are able to evaluate ways to treat — or prevent — diseases in patients.

Brenner first became interested in epidemiology when he was an undergrad studying applied health sciences at Brock University in Ontario.

“My mentor, Dr. Martin C. Tammemägi, was a cancer epidemiologist, and he was working on who should be screened for lung cancer — whether or not you should screen people for lung cancer and, if you should, who should be screened,” he says. “I found that to be such an interesting way to apply epidemiology, statistics and cancer biology all in one. And I thought this is something I could really find myself interested in and engaging in, career-wise.”

Brenner’s next steps were to complete a MSc in epidemiology at Brock before spending a summer at the Johns Hopkins University’s Summer Institute of Epidemiology program and earning his PhD in the discipline at the University of Toronto. He was then chosen for a competitive spot as a post-doctoral fellow at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France.

Next, Brenner made his way to Calgary in October 2013 for a second fellowship with Alberta Health Services (AHS) under the guidance of Dr. Christine Friedenreich, who would later become his co-principal investigator of the Canadian Population Attributable Risk of Cancer (ComPARe) project, which was launched to the public in May 2019.

Brenner calls ComPARe “among the most ambitious and broad-reaching cancer prevention research projects ever conducted in Canada.” The project began in 2014, as a partnership between the Canadian Cancer Society and a nationwide team of experts to determine the current and future burden of cancer in Canada and how those cancers could be prevented. ComPARe models the number of cancers in Canada that can be prevented through various individual initiatives (like being more active and improving diet) to population-level interventions (such as policy change). As the co-principal investigator, Brenner oversaw a team of five, along with Friedenreich, and was responsible for the collection, analysis and dissemination of research with a focus on lifestyle factors — the element of cancer prevention most actionable for members of the public.

Presented in an accessible, interactive online environment filled with graphs, comparisons and predictions through to the year 2042, ComPARe is meant to equip government and health-care workers — as well as the general public — with the necessary information to make better decisions required to prevent cancer. In total, ComPARe looks at 20 modifiable risk factors related to 30 different types of cancer. According to the study, excess weight will be the second most preventable leading cause of cancer in Canada by 2042, and currently, the number one thing you can do to reduce your cancer risk is to not smoke tobacco. The study revealed that 4 in 10 of all cancers can be prevented through lifestyle changes and policy changes.

Brenner’s hope for the project is that it provides a compelling, easy-to-understand map for individuals and legislators but also for medical professionals to help them make decisions that will help prevent cancer even earlier. For example, his research has shown that screening for colorectal cancer can be improved: the current way of evaluating who should be screened doesn’t necessarily consider all factors.

“People who have a family history of colon cancer are carried differently through the screening process, while everyone else falls into what is classified as an average risk population,” he says. “But it is kind of a misnomer, because there’s actually distribution of risk in the otherwise non-family history group,” he says. Essentially, Brenner wants to improve the cancer screening process for all Albertans.

Dr. Paula Robson, the scientific director of cancer research and analytics at CancerControl Alberta and a colleague from Brenner’s days at AHS, notes the significance of Brenner’s work both as a researcher and connector.

“It’s quite amazing, actually, for someone who’s relatively early in his research career, that he’s involved in and leading some really impactful projects,” Robson says. “I think that speaks to his passion, his energy, his drive, but also his fantastic ability to make relationships with scientists and other stakeholders right across Canada. He works very hard to make sure that the work he does will help impact [cancer] someday.”

As for the future, Brenner is already starting on his next major research project, one he calls a follow-up to ComPARe. In collaboration with the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, Brenner is working on a study that will estimate the cost savings related to cancer prevention in Canada, both in terms of reductions in direct patient treatment and indirect patient out-of-pocket costs.

“This approach will give health decision-makers a clear comparison between prevention and treatment in terms of impact and return on investment,” he says. “This is one of the largest projects to broadly examine this important financial aspect of cancer prevention in the world.”

When Brenner isn’t working, you can usually find him with his wife, Melissa, and Nora, the couple’s beloved labradoodle. Whether that’s at an off-leash park or along the Bow River, where Brenner is an avid fly fisherman, depends on his schedule as an instructor at the U of C and part-time role as a spin instructor in Inglewood.

We may never know how he finds the time for each of these pursuits, but a clue may be the inspiration he takes from his students.

“It keeps me sharp,” he says. “I try to find the newest methods, the most up-to-date research, so that it’s relevant and interesting for students. Because they’re so energetic, energized and engaged, it pushes things along.”

7 Questions With Dr. Darren Brenner

1. Describe what you do in 10 words or less.

Cancer prevention and screening research.

2. What’s the biggest misperception about what you do?

That all cancer researchers wear white lab coats and work at the bench. I am part of an emerging group of data scientists who use “big data” to address important questions in cancer prevention, screening and treatment.

3. Where do you get your best ideas?

Walking my dog in one of the fantastic off-leash parks in Calgary. We are blessed with amazing green space in this city. These times help me to recharge and refocus our research plans on a daily basis.

4. What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned?

That changing complex behaviours and health systems is a serious challenge. We take the view that the only way to enable these changes is to provide the best data and answers to break down barriers.

5. What motivates you?

Cancer touches all our lives. While not every research project will have an immediate impact on the cancer burden, we have come a long way in terms of understanding what drives cancer risk and how we can detect it earlier. If I can contribute to this knowledge in some tangible way so that the cancer future is brighter, it is extremely motivating to press on.

6. What do you do to recharge?

Fly-fishing with my dog in mountain streams on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

7. Why does your research matter?

Despite incredible advances in treatment, prevention and screening remain our best options to significantly reduce the cancer burden in the future. Impactful research that will improve prevention and screening programs is essential to meet the cancer challenge in Alberta and beyond. This research can help Canadians in their lifelong cancer prevention journeys.