Having recently commemorated the life work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in mid-January, and in preparing to celebrate Black History Month in February, I can’t help but reflect on what we are doing here, at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, to reduce the burden of cancer in African American and other underserved populations, and to increase the number of African Americans and other under-represented groups in the scientific and medical specialties that make up our cancer work force. As many of you might already know, African Americans have a higher cancer mortality rate than Caucasians and the population as a whole, both throughout the U.S., and in the western Pennsylvania catchment area that Hillman serves.
Our Committee for Cancer Research in Western PA, chaired by Hillman’s Associate Director for Cancer Control and Population Sciences, Jian-Min Yuan, MD, PhD, meets monthly to identify cancer-related problems in Pittsburgh and the surrounding tri-state area, and to spearhead new research that is directed at addressing these problems. Hillman’s Associate Director for Health Equity, Education, and Advocacy, Linda B. Robertson, RN, MSN, DrPH, participates on this Committee, as does health economist and health services researcher Lindsay M. Sabik, PhD, who investigates the role of state and federal policies in affecting healthcare access, utilization, and health outcomes among low-income populations, and Biobehavioral Oncology Program Leader Dana Bovbjerg, PhD, who studies racial differences in cancer risk factors.
Although un-equal access to medical care, leading to later stage at diagnosis, has been found to be a contributing factor to the higher cancer mortality rates in African Americans, there is also new evidence showing that there may be key biological differences in their tumors and how they respond to therapy. The tissue banking and clinical treatment trials that we conduct at Hillman are able to address these issues, when the numbers of African-American patients who elect to participate are at the level required for valid statistical analyses. In a study led by Faina Linkov, PhD and Dr. Bovbjerg in women preparing to undergo bariatric surgery to assist in weight loss, African Americans showed increased levels of several blood biomarkers associated with endometrial cancer - a gynecologic cancer for which obesity is the main risk factor - when compared to women of European ancestry. In addition, I have personally led a large international trial of a new immunotherapy agent for advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, in which the patients deriving from one ethnic group showed improved survival relative to all of the other groups when sub-analyses were performed.
Regarding our efforts to increase the numbers of African-American and minority researchers and clinicians at our cancer center, our Committee for Excellence in Cancer Education and Training, chaired by Hillman Associate Director for Education and Training Christopher Bakkenist, PhD, meets quarterly to assess the effectiveness of our current programs and to develop strategies for increasing their strength and diversity. Dr. Bakkenist and colleague David Boone, PhD are currently preparing a grant application to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to help fund the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Academy - a summer program that provides research and career preparatory experiences to a diverse group of highly motivated high school students who are pursuing higher education and careers in STEM fields, especially research and medicine. This program, which is directed by Dr. Boone, also receives funding from the Doris Duke Foundation and Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Scholars from under-represented and disadvantaged groups are especially encouraged to apply, and receive housing on the Pitt campus and a stipend for participating in the program. Currently accepting applications for its 9th year, the program is highly successfully, with more than 98% of its tracked alumni from under-represented groups enrolling into full-time universities.
Building upon these strengths, we will continue to strive for excellence in cancer education, training, and care for all members of our vast and diverse Hillman community.
Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD