April 6, 2001

Meharry-Vanderbilt partnership targets racial cancer differences

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“Molecular photographs” taken by imaging mass spectrometry. The new technology was used to analyze a slice of human brain tumor (upper left), revealing the distribution of different proteins (represented by green, purple, and yellow). The “yellow” protein (bottom right) – identified as thymosin beta-4 – is concentrated at the outer edge of the growing tumor, suggesting that it is involved in the ability of tumor cells to grow and spread.

Meharry-Vanderbilt partnership targets racial cancer differences

The National Cancer Institute has awarded $7.5 million to support expansion of an innovative partnership between Meharry Medical College and the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

The partnership is designed to combine the strengths of the historically black academic health center and the NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, located only two miles apart. The ultimate goal: close the gap between blacks and whites in cancer incidence and deaths.

For Meharry, the collaboration is expected to enhance and stabilize its ability to conduct competitive cancer research. For Vanderbilt-Ingram, the relationship helps overcome challenges in its ability to develop and sustain research into racial and ethnic disparities in cancer incidence, mortality and morbidity.

“This partnership is so very, very important,” said George C. Hill, Ph.D., vice president for sponsored research at Meharry. “It is taking Meharry, an institution with real strength in working with patients in this community, and the research excellence of Vanderbilt-Ingram and putting them together. Nothing could be better for our community.”

The majority of the funding over a five-year period will go directly to Meharry – approximately $1.3 million each year. The remaining $200,000 per year will go to Vanderbilt-Ingram.

The partnership includes research collaboration, joint recruitment and joint appointment of scientists and clinicians, development of shared research resources at Meharry, funding of pilot research projects, and training opportunities to encourage and prepare minorities to enter careers in cancer care or research.

“Three things make this partnership particularly strong,” said Dr. Harold L. Moses, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and co-principal investigator in the project. “First and foremost, we have developed a real trust and respect between the two institutions. Second, our geographic proximity. And third, the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance has built a strong foundation. Many important issues were already worked out through that process.”

The partnership is coordinated through the Alliance, formed to promote interaction between Meharry and Vanderbilt Medical Center to enhance educational, research and clinical programs at and between both institutions.

“The idea behind this grant is to create a real and enduring partnership between these institutions to address the racial disparities in cancer,” said Dr. Samuel Evans Adunyah, chair of Biochemistry at Meharry and co-principal investigator. “We not only have done that, but we are leading the way. The feedback we have received from the NCI indicates that we can be an important role model for others in the country who want to form similar collaborations.”

The Meharry/Vanderbilt-Ingram partnership was launched about a year ago with $1 million in supplemental support to Vanderbilt-Ingram’s “cancer center core grant,” which covers administrative costs of operating an NCI-designated cancer center. The teams then put in place the necessary programs and plans to go after the Cancer Research Partnership Grant. This grant is designed to help reduce racial disparities in cancer by supporting fruitful collaborations between historically minority institutions and established NCI-designated cancer centers.

As a group, African-Americans face a disproportionate burden from cancer:

African-American men have the highest incidence rates of prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer compared to other ethnic groups.

African-American men are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer than men of other ethnic groups, and they also have the highest mortality rates from colorectal and lung cancer.

White women have the highest incidence of breast cancer of any ethnic group, but African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer.

African-American women have the highest incidence of colorectal and lung cancer and the highest mortality rates from colorectal cancer.

In addition, minority scientists and physicians working in the field of cancer research are scarce, and a disproportionately low number of minorities are being enrolled into clinical trials of the latest and most promising therapies. In addition to supporting graduate training of minority scientists with an interest in cancer research, the partnership also continues development of the infrastructure need to conduct clinical trials at Meharry.

Each institution brings valuable attributes to the partnership. “We need to do the rigorous scientific studies to understand and address these disparities,” said Dr. John E. Maupin, Meharry president and member of Vanderbilt-Ingram’s Board of Overseers. “Through this partnership, we will be better positioned to find those answers together than either institution could alone.”

Since its founding in 1876, Meharry has been a leading producer of African-American physicians and dentists, and today is one of the nation’s leading providers of African-American doctorates in biomedical sciences. Meharry is particularly known for its emphasis on the special health concerns of minorities, the poor and the disadvantaged.

Vanderbilt-Ingram is the only NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Tennessee. This designation, the highest ranking awarded to cancer centers by the NCI, the world’s foremost authority on cancer, recognizes research excellence in cancer causes, development, treatment and prevention, as well as a demonstrated commitment to community education, information and outreach.

The funds will be used to support a variety of scientific, education and patient care initiatives.