In its Clinical and Translational Research Program, the Siteman Cancer Center runs about 350 clinical trials simultaneously, gathering health information from hundreds of patients.
To set up each study and analyze the resulting data requires expertise in biostatistics. This keeps J. Philip Miller, the biostatistics core director at Siteman, very busy. He and his staff guide study investigators through the mathematical morass of statistical analysis. Miller has directed the biostatistics core since the planning stages of Siteman in 1996.
The Siteman Cancer Center conducts therapeutic trials, which test new drugs or combinations of new or existing drugs in cancer patients. Researchers there also conduct clinical studies of treatments designed to prevent cancer in healthy people or in people who have had curative treatment.
“One of the most critical questions that arises in planning a clinical trial is, ‘How many patients will I need to get an interpretable result?'” says Miller, professor of biostatistics. “That’s a question you need biostatistics to answer. We are also here to advise on a variety of statistical tools for gathering and analyzing data.”
Backing up clinical studies is only part of Miller’s duties at Siteman. The Siteman Biostatistics Core also collaborates with the Prevention and Control Program, the Cancer Genetics Program and the Oncological Imaging Program at Siteman.
“Phil has worked tirelessly to integrate cutting-edge statistics into the design of every study done in the Siteman center,” says Siteman Cancer Center Director Timothy J. Eberlein, M.D., the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor, the Bixby Professor and head of the Department of Surgery. “His leadership and enthusiasm are infectious, and he has been a major reason our cancer center has progressed so rapidly.”
Miller and his team also put together a Web-based system that Siteman staff can use to collect data without depending on a computer programmer. “I’ve been active in some of the organizational components that the Siteman center needs to conduct research as well,” Miller says. “Looking back, it’s amazing how far we’ve come. It’s been very rewarding.”
In addition to his work at Siteman, Miller serves as director of the biostatistics core for the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC). He has been with the ADRC a bit longer than he’s been with Siteman — the ADRC was established in 1985, and Miller has been director of its biostatistics core since then.
Researchers at the School of Medicine have collected more than 25 years worth of data on the disease. By contrasting healthy aging with symptoms of Alzheimer’s onset, the ADRC developed ways to recognize Alzheimer’s at its very earliest stages. This led to the now standard scale for rating the severity of intellectual deterioration, the Clinical Dementia Rating.
“One of the big ways that biostatistics aids this research is by using statistical models to estimate the trajectory of the change in mental function over time,” Miller says. “Without these kinds of statistical models, you can’t design intervention studies to see whether you can alter the progression of the disease.”
As director of the ADRC, John C. Morris, M.D., has a great appreciation for Miller’s talents. “For many years, Phil has provided invaluable service and counsel to the ADRC, particularly in helping our clinical investigators develop sound study designs and analytic plans,” says Morris, the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Distinguished Professor of Neurology and professor of pathology and immunology.
“What sets Phil apart in addressing the research questions is that he is very knowledgeable not only as a biostatistician but also in relevant clinical aspects, so that we all can speak the same language.”
A lifetime at WUSTL
Miller also directs the data coordinating centers for multicenter studies of polycystic kidney disease, stroke therapies and ocular hypertension. And that list is just a representative portion of what’s on this professor’s plate. Spreading his hands out across the desk, Miller says, “I have my fingers everywhere. In my line of work, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades.”
Miller’s ties to the University run deep — he’s going to attend his 40th WUSTL class reunion this year. And he has worked on either the Hilltop or Medical campus since he earned his degree. “Over that time, I’ve been blessed to work with many, many bright people throughout the University, and I’ve learned a great deal from them,” Miller says.
In the early days, Miller had an administrative appointment at the Hilltop computing facilities and worked on creating databases for research purposes.
After his Hilltop stint, Miller took a position as a statistical analyst with the cardiology department at the medical school. There, he helped develop computer algorithms that were instrumental in determining that portable electrocardiogram recorders could identify patients with abnormal heart rhythms who were at high risk of sudden death.
It wasn’t long before Miller’s statistical and computational know-how led him to involvement with a multitude of research projects at the School of Medicine. He has also taught several classes in the Division of Biostatistics.
J. Philip Miller
Wife: Fran Lang, Ph.D.
Children: Jonathan, 28; Jessica, 25; Joshua, 25; Laura, 23; and Justin, 21
Hobbies: Photography, technological gadgetry
Has his eye on: The latest digital single lens reflex camera from Nikon
About his involvement with research studies: “These are truly collaborative activities in which everyone brings something to the table from their area of expertise,” he says. “And with every new project, there’s something new to learn.”
Surprisingly, Miller’s formal training is in neither statistics nor computing, but in psychology. “When I was earning my degree, the field of psychology was determined to become more of a hard science, so they emphasized the rigors of conducting research empirically and with statistical tools,” Miller says. “That has really stuck with me, and I also gained an appreciation for what is involved in the actual gathering of data.”
Miller considers himself most of all to be a methodologist, focusing not so much on getting the answers as how best to get them. “When you construct a psychological test, you talk about how to determine the test’s validity,” Miller says. “Those concepts are very similar no matter what field you are in.”
Miller and his wife, Fran Lang, Ph.D., married about four years ago. She was formerly a faculty member in the Department of Pediatrics and then associate dean in Arts & Sciences. While there, Lang also headed the disability resource center. Last fall she left the University to go into private practice as a co-active life coach.
The couple has two daughters, Jessica and Laura, from Miller’s previous marriage and three sons, Jonathan, Joshua and Justin, from Lang’s previous marriage. Three of the children are attending college.
“For my birthday, the kids got me an MSN watch,” Miller says. “The watch can receive text messages, get the weather, change its face and a bunch of other things. The important thing is, it’s the latest technology. I’m always interested in the latest thing. Instead of a Blackberry, I have T-Mobile Sidekick — me and Paris Hilton.”
Biostatistics keeps Miller connected to the latest computing technology for his work, and that carries over to his home life as well. His house isn’t wired, it’s wireless and has at least one computer in every room.
Miller’s love of technology makes photography a perfect hobby for him, because he can indulge in the latest digital gadgetry. “It’s wonderful to be able to have a digital darkroom,” Miller says. “I can do color so much better now than I ever could with a film camera.”
Never one to be left behind in technology’s rapid advance, Miller is keeping his eye on the next new thing.