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Massey ‘Wunderkind’ reflects on winding road to cancer disparities research

Nov 17, 2021

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This week, STAT News named Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D., as one of this year’s 27 STAT Wunderkinds – the news organization’s prestigious award that aims to recognize rising stars in biomedical research.

STAT Wunderkinds can be postdocs, residents, interns, fellows and industry scientists, who have completed their terminal degree but have not yet started their own independent lab. Each year, STAT selects a couple dozen of these impressive early-career scientists to honor, which involves a profile on their internationally-recognized biomedical news outlet as well as a ticket to join the STAT Summit, where this year’s keynote speaker will be Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D. Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D.

“I really just want to make an impact,” said Sutton, a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “I’m so humbled and honored, but I want so much more. It’s not about the things I can hang on my wall, but I think this award is further fire for me. I want to live up to it.”

Sutton, who was born in Hampton Roads – an area with some of the worst cancer outcomes in Virginia – studies health equity, with a focus on cardiovascular disease among breast cancer survivors. But that wasn’t always her path.

When she arrived at VCU as an undergraduate in 2001, the first in her family to attend college, she thought she’d be a pharmacist. Then, while earning her bachelor’s degree, she switched to medical laboratory science, working in the pathology lab at VCU Health.

During her time at the bench, Sutton noticed that there were frequent blood shortages for sickle cell disease patients, who rely on donor blood to replace the misshapen and malfunctioning red blood cells their bodies naturally produce.

Sutton saw these patients leave their transfusion appointments without getting any donor blood and then wait a week or more until they could come back, all the while incurring risk of health complications, such as anemia and stroke and in some cases physical pain.

The core of the issue, it turns out, is that most sickle cell patients are of African descent and require blood from Black donors in order to get a good match. But Black people don’t donate blood as frequently as their white counterparts.

“It’s similar to what we see with other things like COVID-19 vaccine rates,” said Sutton, who is also a member of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine. “There’s mistrust, fear of needles and fear of the unknown.”

So, Sutton decided to change course yet again, from laboratory science to behavioral health. She was in the middle of her Ph.D. at this point and considers herself lucky to have had a supportive dissertation committee that allowed such a switch. On top of this new research direction, she was also still working full time in the pathology lab and taking care of her young son.

To increase blood donation rates among Black residents in the region where she was born, raised and educated, Sutton developed a community-based intervention that involved showing participants a video of sickle cell disease patients and their families talking about why blood donation is so necessary.

She started with her local connections through area churches in Richmond and Norfolk and then word spread to other community groups who were eager to host her.

According to Sutton, most of the people she engaged with remarked that they truly had no idea that Black donor blood was so critical or that there was a shortage.

Sutton enjoyed this public-facing work so much that she decided to pursue it for her postdoctoral training, and while she was looking for a position, she met Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director of community outreach engagement and health disparities at Massey, who ultimately became her mentor. This meant yet another shift for Sutton, from sickle cell disease to breast cancer. But she was undeterred.

“I was attracted to [Sutton’s] grit, energy and willingness to learn and grow,” said Sheppard, who is also the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control and chair and professor of health behavior and policy in the VCU School of Medicine. “And then she met every milestone and exceeded the goals of the fellowship.”

Under Sheppard’s guidance, Sutton has been working at the forefront of a brand-new field called cardio-oncology, which aims to understand and better treat cardiovascular disease in cancer survivors.

Breast cancer survivors are twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease and four times as likely to have risk factors, with Black breast cancer survivors being at even greater risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease.

Sutton found that racism might be contributing to differences in how Black breast cancer patients are treated by their doctors, compared to white patients. She also explored differences in cardiovascular disease medication use between these groups.

Last year, Sutton won a coveted Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) from the National Institutes of Health. This grant is designed to help young investigators transition from being a postdoc in someone else’s lab to being a tenure-track assistant professor running their own research team. She’s currently on the job market.

“It’s the right time,” Sutton said, referring to her next career move. “I’m absolutely ready for it.”

Written by: Erin Hare

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