Addressing Outcomes, Workforce Disparities
African Americans are more likely to die of cancer than any other ethnic group. Helping the medical community gain a better understanding of that reality is a monumental job, but it's one the nation's four historically Black medical schools are tackling thanks to a recently launched partnership under the American Cancer Society's Diversity in Cancer Research Program (DICR) umbrella, which was announced earlier this year.
The ACS is partnering with Meharry Medical College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Charles Drew Medical School and Howard University to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the cancer research environment to help address health disparities. The inaugural initiatives of the overarching program include DICR Institutional Development Grants in a pilot program for 2021-2022. ACS has committed to a $12 million investment to fund a four-year program aimed to increase the pool of minority cancer researchers by identifying talented students and faculty from the four HBCU medical schools.
Partnering with Meharry
Samuel E. Adunyah, PhD, professor and chair of Biochemistry and Cancer Biology at Meharry Medical College, said ACS has long done a fantastic job of creating
awareness through education and prevention. "Having a partnership with medical schools is very important for what the ACS wants to do in addressing disparities," he explained. "They want to invest in different respects of cancer prevention and address health disparities."
For more than 100 years, Nashville's Meharry Medical College has trained more African American physicians than any other school in the nation. Graduating about 100 students each year, 87 percent of the student body is Black. Nearly 90 percent of the Master of Public Health students and 92 percent of dental school graduates are African American. In fact, Meharry's School of Dentistry produces 39 percent of the nation's Black dental physicians.
By the Numbers
Data show African Americans and Black people, Hispanics and Latinos, indigenous people and native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are underrepresented in grant funding. Fewer than 2 percent of applicants for the National Institute of Health's principal grant program come from Black/African Americans and fewer than 4 percent from Hispanic/Latino populations.
The ACS partnership will boost cancer research and career development at minority-serving institutions such as Meharry, with grants designed to build capacity and enhance competitiveness of faculty at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) when applying for nationally competitive grant support and aid in faculty development and retention.
The awards provided through the DICR program are unique in cancer research, providing a large amount of salary support for the four HBCU medical schools to select clinical faculty who need more dedicated time for their cancer research and scholarly activities. They also fund other students and postdoctoral programs and underpin the awards with career development funds and mentorship by established American Cancer Society professors. The goal of the grants is to build sustainability for both clinical and scientific cancer-focused careers, launching or sustaining the careers of 104 individuals by 2025.
Lowering Death Rates
The initiative will focus on pilot projects in the top five cancers: breast, colon, lung, prostate and ovarian. "Those five cancers are the ones with highest incidence as a nation but also have the highest death rates for African Americans," Adunyah said.
For example, while white women are more likely to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, the death rate among Black women is much higher. Similarly, Black men are more than twice as likely as white men to die from prostate cancer, and lung cancer has a higher incidence among Black men.
"Research will focus on getting more information on why that's the case and try to address it," said Adunyah. "If you sum up those types of cancers, the bottom line is that in the last 20 to 25 years, overall death rates are going down in the U.S. as a whole; but when you break it down into racial groups, that decline is much slower in African Americans. We're trying to understand that."
On the local front, funding also will help Meharry focus on cancer control and prevention, funding two Master of Public Health students each year for four years. Adunyah said training would directly reduce incidence of new cases through education around lifestyle changes, diet and activity.
The project also will support post-doctorate fellows in biomedical sciences or public health to become independent cancer researchers following graduate studies. "There's a big disparity of minorities and African Americans in cancer research and the workforce," Adunyah said, pointing to a surprising 2-3 percent minority rate among oncologists. "Still, we know the extent to which that affects patients and that ultimately this funding will move the dial a little and increase equality."
A Promising Future
Adunyah said funding for research has been particularly difficult for the past decade, with grant funding from the National Institutes of Health virtually stalled. "When you have a private society like the ACS focused exclusively on cancer provide additional funding for training, it's very important," he said.
Adunyah said the grant represents the first ACS funding of HBCUs. "The fact that the ACS is partnering with us is a very significant change, which will allow us to address disparities as a nation," he said. "The more we impact the community and provide education, the more we'll be able to stop some of these cancer deaths and impact not just African Americans but those who might be interested in working in the field of cancer. Given the high incidence of cancer among Blacks, this will play a pretty significant role in addressing those." He added he also hopes the partnership will result in ACS support of non-medical HBCUs, such as those with thriving education programs.
"Partnering with the ACS is an honor and blessing," Adunyah concluded. "Given the great work the ACS is doing, it's an honor for us to team up with them and enhance their ability to provide cancer information and control."