Collaborative work is key to developing sustainable public health solutions and improving population health outcomes. This weekly series spotlights one SPH faculty member who advances public health through collaborations within the field and across sectors.
Can you describe your research interests in clinical trial design and analysis for HIV and substance use?
Clinical trials and HIV/AIDS research have been longstanding research interests of mine. I began working in these areas during my doctoral training at Harvard. After I arrived at BUSPH, I expanded this work to include substance use and its intersection with HIV. Over the past several years I have been a part of numerous studies focused on these topics including a recent randomized clinical trial examining the impact of zinc supplementation on markers of mortality in HIV-infected patients with risky drinking, and a cluster randomized clinical trial testing the effect of a multicomponent clinical program to improve opioid prescribing among providers treating persons living with HIV on chronic opioid therapy. Our main goals in these studies are to understand the relationships among HIV, substance use, and comorbidities and to develop effective interventions to treat them.
The design and conduct of clinical trials is interesting and challenging to me because there is often not a clear “right” answer to many of the issues that arise. We are always trying to balance what is ideal from a methodological point of view with what is practical, feasible, and ethical to implement. Also, much of the work I do includes international studies (e.g. in Russia and Uganda) where we may need to adapt approaches so they are appropriate for different settings. I’ve greatly enjoyed the experience of working with investigators from all over the world and learning from them about their cultures and environments. This understanding is critical for me to help guide the design and conduct of our studies.
How is collaborative research integral to your work, and can you discuss one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?
All of my work is collaborative in nature. None of the studies I’ve been involved in could have been completed by a single person. They are multidisciplinary team efforts that I find make them much more effective, productive, and engaging.
My current collaborations include the URBAN ARCH Consortium, an international group of researchers examining the consequences of alcohol on comorbidities among people living with HIV. Our ultimate goal is to increase the availability of treatments and improve clinical outcomes. I am Principal Investigator of the Biostatistics and Data Management Core and we collaborate on a range of clinical trials and epidemiologic studies designed to address gaps in our understanding about HIV and alcohol.
Another major ongoing collaboration is the HEALing Communities Study (HCS)—a multi-site, parallel arm, cluster randomized, wait-list controlled trial evaluating the impact of the Communities That HEAL (CTH) intervention compared with usual care in wait-list communities. The CTH is a community-engaged intervention that provides a comprehensive, data-driven community response plan to deploy evidence-based practices across multiple sectors to reduce opioid-related overdose deaths and associated outcomes. The HCS has enrolled and randomized 67 communities from 4 states: Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. We hope that the knowledge gained from this study will lead to dramatic reductions in opioid overdose deaths in communities nationwide.
I am incredibly fortunate to collaborate with so many individuals—including clinical investigators, project managers, fellow biostatisticians, data analysts, and graduate students—who are not only talented and dedicated to their work but also kindhearted, generous and fun. They are truly inspiring! I learn something new every day and hope that my expertise in biostatistics will help improve the quality and scientific rigor of our work.
“Professor Cheng is an outstanding collaborator, contributing her leadership skills and biostatistics expertise to important studies, such as the investigation of substance abuse in HIV patients. She is an outstanding mentor who has put much effort in promoting the careers of junior faculty in our department, as part of our department and SPH Faculty development committees. Professor Cheng is generous with her time, always willing to offer guidance and advice. She is a highly valued member of the Biostatistics Department and of the SPH community.”
Josée Dupuis, chair and professor in the Department of Biostatistics