A New Faculty Member From the Land of Fire and Ice

Faculty Spotlight - Sigurdis Haraldsdottir, MD

Sigurdis Haraldsdottir, MD (assistant professor, Oncology), is a recent (October 2015) newcomer to the Department of Medicine faculty. She is a native of Iceland, a fact that colors her professional interests as well as the ways she chooses to spend her free time.

Iceland is a country with a population of just over 300,000 souls, virtually all of them descendants of the original settlers who came from Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia about two thousand years ago. Iceland’s homogeneity is what led some of its geneticists to found a company they named deCODE in 1996, resulting almost 20 years later in an extraordinary set of publications about whole-genome sequencing of the Icelandic people in Nature Genetics in May 2015.

It happens that Haraldsdottir’s research focus is a genetic disease found in a small subpopulation of patients with colorectal cancer.

She explains: “My primary research is in colorectal cancer, more specifically in mismatch repair-deficient tumors, which can either be related to the inherited Lynch Syndrome or somatic inactivation of the mismatch repair genes, which is not inherited. I have been mapping out colorectal cancer and Lynch Syndrome in the Icelandic population.”

Lynch Syndrome predisposes patients to several cancers, most importantly colorectal and endometrial, but also ovarian cancer, genitourinary cancer, other gastrointestinal cancers, brain tumors, and skin cancers. “The prevalence is not accurately known,” says Haraldsdottir. “The Finns have investigated this the most, led by Dr. Albert de la Chapelle who was one of my mentors at Ohio State and has led a similar effort at Ohio State. The initial prevalence numbers out of Finland were that 1 in 700 people carries the syndrome, but today we believe it is more common than that, likely 1 in 300. Of all colorectal cancers, 2 to 3 percent are caused by Lynch Syndrome.

“It’s so important to identify that 2 to 3 percent,” Haraldsdottir continues,  “because their family members might also carry Lynch Syndrome, and then they can undergo colonoscopies and gyn exams to try to prevent those cancers. As an oncologist I think it’s so important that we’re not just treating but we’re also trying to prevent these cancers.”

If you were to Google Iceland, you might come upon this brief description at www.iceland.is: “Iceland is a country of sharp contrasts. A place where fire and ice co-exist. Where dark winters are offset by the summer’s midnight sun. A country where insular existence has spurred a rich and vibrant culture.”

One of the effects of that insular existence is a key to Haraldsdottir’s off-hours pursuits. She explains: “In Iceland we are a nation of singing and story-telling because there wasn’t all that much we could do back in the day when we were very isolated in the North Atlantic.

Sigurdis Haraldsdottir with her spouse Roza in the highlands of Iceland.

“Every Icelander is either a musician or has written a book. We have the highest number of authors per capita in the world. So I haven’t written a book, but I play an instrument and I love singing and jamming on the guitar.”

She also plays soccer recreationally. She has chosen to land in a great part of the world to enjoy both of those interests.

Haraldsdottir readily lists things that are different between Iceland and the US:

“Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are the weather - California doesn’t really have a winter while Iceland has 9 months of what I like to call non-summer (no real seasons) with volatile weather. The weather forecast is probably right less than 50% of the time, and you just never know what you’re gonna get. So we are used to bringing all kinds of clothes, from winter jackets to shorts and t-shirts, on summer camping trips because of how quickly the weather can change.”

There are other major differences, too. “California has a huge selection of fresh produce while we have to import most fruits and vegetables into Iceland. I also find the wildlife in California to be very rich. We have very few mammals and insects in Iceland, for instance no reptiles and no mosquitoes.”

And, finally, the environment: “Each country is beautiful in its own way. Volcanoes, glaciers, and mountains in Iceland and sceneries in California that include everything from beaches to ski resorts.” 

From time to time we will tell the stories of other members of the DOM who pursue interesting avenues in their spare time. Let us know about any that interest you.