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NIH grant to address chronic diseases that affect populations with health disparities

Jan. 13, 2022, 10:09 AM


by Kathy Whitney

Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Meharry Medical College and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine are the recipients of a $12.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to jointly develop the Southeast Collaborative for Innovative and Equitable Solutions to Chronic Disease Disparities.

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities has awarded funds to 11 research institutions to establish and support regional comprehensive research centers on the prevention, treatment and management of comorbid chronic diseases that disproportionately affect populations with health disparities.

The collaborative, led by four principal investigators, will aim to reduce risk factors for and disparities in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and related conditions among African American and Latino populations in the Southeast, said principal investigator Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Senior Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Health Equity and Inclusive Excellence and professor of Medicine at VUMC.

“The burden of racial and ethnic health disparities is most evident in the southeastern United States, where Black and Latino populations suffer the highest rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cancer and asthma,” Wilkins said. “These chronic conditions are a primary cause of poor health, reduced quality of life and premature death, and account for more than 50% of health care expenditures.”

The collaborative has four goals: establish the infrastructure to foster research collaborations to reduce chronic disease disparities; facilitate a pilot  awards  program  focused  on  chronic  disease disparities  that  supports  career  development,  and advances  use  of  data  science,  technology and bioinformatics to address the complex drivers of health disparities; propel novel health disparities research to prevent, treat  and  manage diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity in African American and Latino populations; and partner with these communities to integrate their priorities into the Center’s infrastructure and develop, adapt and test appropriate interventions to eliminate chronic disease disparities.

“The best science brings together expertise from all disciplines relevant to a problem,” said principal investigator Nancy Cox, MD, Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray professor of Medicine at VUMC. “Health disparities is a challenging but critically important problem that is inherently multidisciplinary. Particularly as we now seek to address disparities in health related to chronic diseases, the need to use all available data with all relevant expertise is the only way forward. It is really gratifying to be able to continue this work with our longtime collaborators at Meharry and Miami.”

Despite substantial reduction of some chronic diseases and risk factors over the last few decades, the Southeast continues to have the highest number of potentially preventable deaths for each of the five leading causes of death. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise 39% of the population of the Southeast, which includes nearly 15 million African Americans and 9 million Latinos.

“Minorities in the Southeast fare worse on many health indicators compared to other regions, in large part due to poor socioeconomic status, with more than 22% of Southeastern residents living in poverty,” said principal investigator Roy Weiss, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Miami Health System. “Effectively addressing pervasive chronic disease disparities will require interventions that consider the needs, priorities and lived experiences of those disproportionately impacted.”

Research teams with expertise in social, environmental, behavioral and biological disciplines will collaborate to develop and test multicomponent strategies aimed at the multilevel determinants that drive disparities. Two such research projects in the works include Adaptive Interventions for Tobacco Cessation, led by Bryan Heckman, PhD, founding director of the  Meharry Medical College Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Division of Public Health at Meharry Medical College, and Reducing Disparities in Sleep Apnea and Related Cardiometabolic Outcomes, led by Naresh M. Punjabi, MD, PhD, chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine and Mary Jane and Lino Sertel Professor  of Pulmonary Disease at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine.

“Racial and ethnic disparities will remain intractable if equitable solutions are not identified and translated into settings where people live their lives. Our collaborative’s focus on equity will ensure that those experiencing disproportionate chronic disease burdens in the Southeast have equal opportunity to not only lead and participate in solutions but also benefit from them,” said Stephania Miller-Hughes PhD, MS, MSCI, professor in the Department of Surgery at Meharry Medical College and principal investigator for the Southeast Collaborative for Innovative and Equitable Solutions to Chronic Disease Disparities. “Engaging community stakeholders throughout all phases of the research, which is central to the work of the collaborative, is therefore vitally important to developing and testing interventions that have the greatest likelihood of mitigating disparities.”

This new center is supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P50MD017347.

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