Cancer Epidemiology Research Group

The Cancer Epidemiology Research Group (CERG) is a division of the National Cancer Registry. CERG was established in 2000 under the directorship of Professor Freddy Sitas by the MRC, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the then South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), and the University of the Witwatersrand.  Currently most funding is received from the NHLS and the Medical Research Council (MRC) with a small sum from Wits University, and project-specific funding from CANSA.

The CERG reports to the NHLS Deputy Director for the National Cancer Registry & Research.  The NCR and the CERG are located on the Braamfontein campus of the NHLS.

An estimated one in seven South Africans will be diagnosed with a cancer in their lifetime.  Approximately 80% of these are thought to be the end result of external, non-inherited factors which could potentially have been prevented.  The initial aim of CERG was to quantify the impact of common known cancer-causing agents (such as tobacco) within the South African context, as well as potential and escalating causes of cancer (such as hormonal contraceptives).

Since early in the HIV epidemic CERG has examined the impact of the HI virus on cancer patterns. This continues to be of major public health importance in light of the magnitude of the epidemic and the ongoing rollout of anti-retroviral therapy which is extending the life of HIV positive persons.

CERG was one of the key groups that contributed to the discovery of human herpes virus 8 (HHV8) as a necessary cause of Kaposi’s sarcoma.  Recently they were part of an international collaboration which determined that human papillomaviruses are not significant causes of squamous cell oesophageal cancer. CERG will continue investigating potential viral causes of specific cancers.
The CERG was involved in developing the current death notification form, and in the subsequent ground-breaking analysis of the effect of smoking on causes of death in South Africa.

The main platform for CERG’s research is an on-going case-control study which began in Johannesburg’s tertiary hospitals in 1995.  To date, over 21 000 patients have been interviewed; over 90% have also donated blood specimens.  This study has created a unique and growing ‘biobank’ that can be used for future analyses of pathogens or genetic factors linked to cancer, and their interaction with the socio-demographic and environmental data collected via the questionnaire.

Extraction of DNA from archived whole blood samples was initiated early in 2013 to evaluate genetic susceptibility to various cancers in South African populations.

Data from the study are also useful for monitoring health behaviours such as the use of hormonal contraceptives and the uptake of Pap smears and HIV testing.

Professor Sitas emigrated from South Africa to Australia in December 2002, where he is Director of the Cancer Research Division at the New South Wales Cancer Council.  He continues to be involved in CERG data analysis and publications.  Dr Lara Stein was Acting Director from Dec 2002 until June 2009.

The CEO of the NHLS assigned executive responsibility for the CERG to the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) in February 2009.

CERG Contact:
Dr. Chantal Babb
011 489 9170