By Beena Thannickal
The University of Alabama at Birmingham has received a five-year, $16.6 million renewal grant from the National Cancer Institute for the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, Morehouse School of Medicine and Tuskegee University partnership to address cancer disparities among African-Americans.
“Culture, environment, health care access, socioeconomics and population-specific genetic differences contribute to high cancer incidences and to cancer health disparities,” said Upender Manne, Ph.D., lead principal investigator and professor in the UAB Department of Pathology. “Our efforts are focused on answers to these problems. We use a persistent, multifaceted strategy, combining multidisciplinary approaches to unravel the molecular basis for cancer disparities, training of health professionals and community health educators across the cancer care continuum, and accelerating the development of cancer scientists.”
This tripartite research effort, initially funded by NCI as a cooperative grant in 2006, pairs federally designated comprehensive cancer centers such as the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center with institutions of higher learning that historically serve minorities. The collaboration between MSM, TU and the UAB Cancer Center is especially relevant since Georgia and Alabama have high cancer mortality rates.
“Cancer is not an equal-opportunity disease,” said Edward Partridge, M.D., director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and co-principal investigator. “Cancer rates are 10 percent higher among African-Americans than Caucasians, and death rates are double those of Caucasians. While the cause of these statistics is still unknown, many minorities must face this great burden without the resources they need.”
The UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center has a long history as a leader in community outreach, most notably for its work in increasing education and awareness of cancer in minority and underserved populations. “With this competitive renewal, the Partnership will continue to bring the benefits of advances in cancer research to disadvantaged regional patient populations, influencing their lives for decades to come,” Manne said.
Partnership activities include bench- and community-level cancer research with a goal of understanding the causes for cancer disparities, as well as education and training programs that encourage students, fellows and junior faculty to pursue studies in biomedical sciences so they will be linked with seasoned investigators within the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The community outreach activities of the Partnership promote cancer awareness and healthy lifestyles among underserved populations and encourage minority participation in therapeutic clinical trials. In the Greater Atlanta area, the MSM outreach effort has screened 600 people for colon cancer. In the Tuskegee area, the TU outreach effort increased physical activity for more than 400 rural residents who participated in healthy lifestyle programs, and improved dietary choices for more than 60 residents. At the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, more than 500 African-American cancer patients participated in therapeutic trials.
The lead principal investigator at MSM is James Lillard, Ph.D., who works with co-principal investigator Brian Rivers. At TU, the lead principal investigator is Roberta Troy, Ph.D., and the co-principal investigator is Clayton Yates, Ph.D.
During the past 10 years, the Partnership has trained 249 junior faculty, graduate students and undergraduate scholars to perform cancer-related research. Each of the institutions has had substantial increases in cancer research funding. At MSM, funding increased to more than $19 million in 2015 from $8 million in 2006. During the same period, TU cancer research funding increased to more than $7 million from less than $2 million. The Cancer Control and Population Science Program at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center increased to more than $25 million in 2015 from $12 million in 2006.
MSM has established a cancer research program with 32 faculty members from diverse scientific disciplines, compared to five scientists before the Partnership was funded. TU has increased its capacity to conduct cancer research by training students and scientists who focus on eliminating cancer disparities, and has developed two cancer-related courses for its curriculum. Also, TU established the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care as a national resource for cancer disparity programs.
In the previous funding periods, Partnership investigators published more than 116 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts directly related to Partnership activities and received funding for 58 additional scientific projects. In addition to these publications, UAB scientists associated with the Partnership published 151 manuscripts related to cancer disparities.
“Our partnership with Morehouse and Tuskegee is an excellent example of the power of collaboration in cancer research,” said Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., MPH, professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine and a co-principal investigator. “We are excited to expand our efforts during this next round of funding and bring even further advancements to these underserved populations in not just Alabama and Georgia, but across the Deep South and other low-resource settings.”