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Cancer center and neighboring HBCU receive $1.7M to increase health equity and research pipeline diversity

Oct 21, 2021

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Two institutions with different skills and perspectives are teaming up to create a program that’s the first-of-its-kind in the state of Virginia

Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center (Massey) and Virginia State University (VSU) have received a prestigious “team science” grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) focused on reducing cancer disparities and providing hands-on research opportunities to students who are historically underrepresented in science. The total award amount is $1.7 million over the course of four years.

This is the first time that a Virginia-based cancer center and a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) have joined forces to win such a grant, which will enable cross-institutional collaboration among multiple teams of scientists, robust community engagement and in-person research training at an NCI-designated cancer center for budding scientists whose home institution is classified as an HBCU.

“This award will allow us to engage closely with both our neighboring HBCU and the community to infuse our science with new ideas,” said principal investigator (PI) Robert Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at Massey, senior associate dean for cancer innovation and a professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. “It will also allow both universities to give back, using the resources we’re blessed with here at Massey and the historical knowledge and connections of VSU – acting locally with the potential for global impact.”

Robert Winn Robert Winn, M.D.

"We are proud to have a seat at the table to take part in this research that so heavily affects our Black American population, and to further expand the reach of Massey Cancer Center. Through a combination of mentorship and access to resources, this grant allows us the opportunity to provide meaningful professional development experiences to VSU faculty and students who may be interested in exploring population health for more bench-oriented science in the context of cancer, said PI for VSU M. Omar Faison, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, associate vice provost of research and economic development and interim dean of the VSU College of Graduate Studies.

Milton Omar Faison M. Omar Faison, Ph.D.

“It's exciting to see this mutually-beneficial partnership between VCU Massey Cancer Center and Virginia State University, which is led at Massey by its director and our two-time Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) Distinguished Scholar Dr. Robert Winn,” said Sanya Springfield, Ph.D., director of the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities. “The partnership’s overall goals align with those of the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities — eliminating cancer disparities and increasing workforce diversity — so that our workforce better reflects our nation and so that certain groups do not bear an uneven cancer burden. Importantly, the partnership intends to make a difference at a local level and to partner with the community to do so.”

The grant’s first project, led by VCU School of Medicine professor of human and molecular genetics and Massey Cancer Biology program member Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., will investigate the genetics behind why Black Americans seem to be more susceptible to liver and gastrointestinal cancers.

Preliminary data points to a gene that's part of an inflammatory pathway, so with the recommendation of Rafat Siddiqui, Ph.D., professor of food and nutrition science, who is leading this project on the VSU side, the team will also explore the anti-cancer effects of naturally-derived anti-inflammatory compounds, such as ginger extract or blueberry extract, on cancer cell lines.

These natural compounds are gentler on the liver than traditional cancer drugs, so they may prove useful for patients who can't tolerate the full dose of existing drugs due to liver damage sustained over the course of their disease.

“The collaboration really is a two-way street,” said Sarkar, who holds the Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Cancer Research and serves as associate director of education and training at Massey. “We’re coming with the more molecular-level expertise, whereas VSU is coming with a theoretical therapeutic perspective. It's a true partnership.”

Sarkar Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D.

The second project, led by Maria Thomson, Ph.D. for Massey, centers on community outreach in the predominantly Black city of Petersburg, where life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average and cancer is the leading cause of premature death. Thomson is an associate professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine and a member of Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control program. The project lead for VSU is associate professor of psychology Larry Keen, Ph.D.

Vanessa Sheppard Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D.

“Virginia State has deep roots in the community,” said grant co-PI and professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., who holds the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control and serves as associate director of community outreach engagement and health disparities at Massey. “I think that by bringing together VSU’s mission as a land-grant university with our expertise in cancer, we can really tackle health disparities in a meaningful way.”

Massey and VSU will build and strengthen local partnerships with federally-qualified health centers, the public library, barber shops and other community centers to collect in-depth data about Black men’s beliefs around screening for colorectal cancer, as well as looking for patterns in who gets screened and who doesn’t.

Using this information as a guide, the team will develop interventions to increase rates of screening for colorectal cancer, which is highly preventable and disproportionately affects Black men in particular.

For many years, Thomson, Sheppard and others at Massey have been doing community outreach around colorectal cancer through the National Cancer Institute’s Screen to Save program, but they noticed participation is low among Black men, likely because the curriculum simply isn’t designed to target them. This project aims to change that.

“Screen to Save is a program that holds promise in reaching diverse communities, but it lacks interventions designed to engage Black men specifically,” Thomson said. “Bringing together the knowledge and experience of VSU, Massey and community partners, this is a great opportunity to create a tailored program that will be engaging and be useful.” 

Maria Thomson Maria Thomson, Ph.D.

This grant has been nicknamed SUCCEED – which stands for VSU and Massey Cancer Center PartnErship for CancEr Disparities Research and Training – and is classified by the NCI as a P20 grant, which means that it’s intended to fund the creation of a new center uniting a team of several scientists conducting exploratory research around a common theme and increase the diversity of the cancer research workforce.

Securing a P20 sets Massey and VSU on the path toward a larger, more long-lasting U54 grant that would solidify and expand upon the aims laid out in the present proposal.

Daniel Roberts Daniel M. Roberts, Ed.D.

“The P20 SUCCEED grant from the NIH represents an enormous opportunity for Virginia State University and the VCU Massey Cancer Center to work together as partners in advancing knowledge and education about cancer. As the dean of the VSU Honors College, I am excited to serve as one of the VSU PIs for the grant and even more excited to have our students involved in the research and education opportunities,” said Daniel M. Roberts, Ed.D., who also serves as executive director of global and special initiatives at VSU.

“VCU and VCU Health strive toward a future where access to excellent health care is available to everyone,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System. “This award for VCU Massey Cancer Center demonstrates yet one more substantive way in which we are being recognized as a leader in building a more equitable society for all human beings.”

“As an HBCU, Virginia State University has always addressed the disparities among Black people in our country,” said Dr. Makola M. Abdullah, President of Virginia State University. “Now, we are proud to also address disparities in an entirely new way for this partnership. We are excited to share our knowledge of and access to the Black community, while increasing our capacity to participate in health disparity research on our campus.”

"Massey is again demonstrating that closing racial health gaps won’t come just from discoveries inside labs and clinics,” said Arthur Kellerman, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. “We’ll move the needle through team science and community engagement. That's why a grant like this is so important to our work.”

Additional investigators on the grant include John Fife, Ph.D., of VSU; Joseph Landry, Ph.D., Seung Lee, M.D., Michael Preston, Ph.D., M.P.H., Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., and Dipankar Bandyopadhyay Ph.D., of VCU Massey Cancer Center; and Deborah Diaz Granados, Ph.D., of the VCU School of Medicine.

Contact:
Erin Hare
phone: (804) 628-5198
email: haree@vcu.edu

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