December 5, 2003

Caterpillar pledges $1 million for cohort study

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From left to right, back row: Bill Blot, SCCS principal investigator; Hal Moses, VICC director; Jim Beard, Caterpillar vice president; Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar group president; Margaret Hargreaves, SCCS co-principal investigator. Front row: Tony Scoville, VICC board of overseers; Missy Scoville, Jane Beard and Diane Cullinan-Oberhelman.

Caterpillar pledges $1 million for cohort study

The Southern Community Cohort Study (SCCS), the largest population-based health study of African-Americans ever conducted, has received a critical infusion of support from Caterpillar Inc., which has pledged $1 million to the historic initiative.

A $22 million, five-year federal grant to fund the study is significant but fell $6 million short of the initial proposal. The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center has committed to raising the shortfall through private philanthropy.

The pledge from Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, natural gas and diesel engines and industrial gas turbines, is the largest private gift thus far. The study is an innovative collaboration among Vanderbilt, Meharry Medical College, the International Epidemiology Institute and federally funded community health centers (CHCs) throughout the Southeast.

“This is an ambitious project of national and international importance,” said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs at Vanderbilt Medical Center. “We must meet the challenge of ensuring that advances in medicine are shared equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, geography or economic status. This generous gift from Caterpillar goes a long way toward ensuring that the full promise of this landmark study will be realized.”

The study will provide critical information to help understand — and ultimately address — why African-Americans and residents of the Southeast are at greater risk of developing and dying from cancer than other groups.

While the study’s initial focus is on cancer, the cohort will provide invaluable information for the study of other significant health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and stroke, all of which also disproportionately affect African-Americans and Southerners.

“When it comes to social responsibility, Caterpillar makes betterment of the world a formal part of its corporate strategy,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “This pledge is an outstanding illustration of that commitment, and provides an important infusion of support for the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s program in epidemiology.

“I also want to thank Caterpillar for its decade of support for Vanderbilt and the Owen School and to express my hopes that Caterpillar and Vanderbilt will find many creative ways to work together in the years to come.”

“Caterpillar’s leadership has been impressed with the ambitious scope of the SCCS and with its ultimate goal of eliminating racial, ethnic and regional disparities in cancer and other diseases,” said Douglas R. Oberhelman, group president of Peoria, Ill. based Caterpillar Inc.

“In the discussions that we had with the lead investigators, it became clear that they have an extraordinary vision,” Oberhelman said. “Caterpillar is a company that is committed to equal opportunity and that is, it seemed to us, what the Southern Community Cohort Study is all about. We are pleased to have the opportunity to support and participate in such an important endeavor to ensure that the burden of cancer and other diseases is reduced for everyone, regardless of race or circumstance.”

Oberhelman, along with Caterpillar Financial Products Division Vice President Jim Beard, visited Vanderbilt Nov. 10 to officially celebrate the company’s pledge. Their visit included meetings with Gee and Jacobson, a tour of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, and lunch with many of the key individuals involved in the SCCS and other work at Vanderbilt-Ingram.

The SCCS began enrolling participants in spring of 2002, with a total recruitment goal of 105,000 people, two-thirds of them African-American. To date, more than 20,000 participants have been enrolled in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky. More than 80 percent are African-American.

Participants are extensively interviewed about their diet, exercise habits and other lifestyle factors that may be involved in disease, and blood and/or saliva samples are being collected.

The cohort will be followed for many years, and the various lifestyle and biologic (genetic) factors will be analyzed to determine differences between those that develop (and die from) disease and those that do not. Such a prospective population-based study is the gold standard when it comes to identifying causes of disease, but to date, the major population-based studies have under-represented African-Americans. This is also the first such study to be conducted in the South.

By necessity, this type of research takes many years; however, private philanthropic support to augment the bare-bones budget provided by the National Cancer Institute will fuel quicker enrollment. That, in turn, will speed epidemiologic analysis and follow-up, the lead investigators say.