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Xue studies complex determinants of tobacco use, obesity and other risk factors for cancer and chronic disease

Apr 05, 2019


Hong Xue, Ph.D., studies the multi-faceted social and environmental determinants of obesity, tobacco use and other risk factors related to chronic diseases including many types of cancer.

Xue joined Massey as an associate member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program in 2018. He is also an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine.

His work integrates economics, nutrition, epidemiology, systems science, simulation modeling, geographic information systems, machine learning and big data analytics to study complex health problems including obesity, non-communicable chronic diseases and smoking in the U.S. and worldwide.

Xue is currently the principal investigator on a $450,000 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth to study the impacts of tobacco control policy among youth in Virginia, with a particular emphasis on e-cigarettes.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer in Virginia and the U.S., and it is linked to the development of a wide range of disease types including lung, larynx, mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreas, colorectal and cervical cancer, as well as acute myeloid leukemia, as indicated by the National Cancer Institute.

“E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among middle and high school students, and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report declared e-cigarette use among youth and young adults to be a major public health concern in 2016,” Xue said. “Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are largely unregulated. There is an urgent need for the scientific community to provide the best available evidence to identify and address the gaps in the mandates and to inform policy implementation strategies.”

This study is the first to use systems science and simulation modeling methods to build interactive Virginia-based simulation models to assist policy development, implementation and evaluation to prevent and control tobacco use among youth in Virginia. He is collaborating on this research with co-investigators and Massey Cancer Prevention and Control research members Andrew Barnes, Ph.D., and J. Randy Koch, Ph.D.

“We expect our project to generate significant evidence to support efforts to advance legislative issues in Virginia,” Xue said. “We hope to prevent and reduce e-cigarette use as a means to improve the health of young people.”

Another one of Xue’s primary research strengths involves using novel systems approaches in biomedical research as a means to understand and reduce obesity.

The National Cancer Institute reports that there is consistent evidence showing that higher amounts of body fat are associated with increased risks of 13 types of cancer.

“Addressing obesity is especially challenging because it is a complex systems problem,” Xue said. “The drivers of the growing obesity epidemic are complicated, involving the multi-layered interactions of policy, social, economic, cultural, environmental, behavioral and biological factors. My research seeks to deconstruct those complex underlying factors, model causality and understand the entirety of the obesogenic environment.”

Additionally, Xue has been trying to apply cutting-edge analytic methods in many critical public health fields, for example, machine learning in health care research. He has a highly interdisciplinary research team consisting of postdoctoral and predoctoral trainees and collaborators from diverse fields such as computer science, epidemiology, statistics, geography, nutrition, economics, etc. Xue has previously published in more than 35 peer-reviewed journal articles including in Obesity Review, Pediatric Obesity, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, among others.

Xue grew up in Chengdu, a city in southwest China. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics; he earned a Ph.D. in economics from Virginia Tech in 2010 and a Ph.D. in nutritional epidemiology from John Hopkins University in 2016.

He joined VCU in 2017, and was attracted to the university’s interdisciplinary and academic atmosphere, a strong informatics resource and direct access to patients as well as patient data.

Xue lives in Short Pump with his wife and daughter, and he enjoys photography and traveling with his family.

Written by: Blake Belden

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