New center to broaden cancer disparities research, diversify Florida’s biomedical work force

For many underrepresented minorities, pursuing careers in cancer research can be daunting. Nontraditional academic backgrounds and lack of exposure to research experiences often are impediments to underrepresented minorities’ preparedness for successful cancer research careers.

These minority students and investigators will now have support from the Florida Minority Cancer Research and Training Center, the state’s first and only National Cancer Institute minority institution/cancer center partnership focused on cancer research and training for African-Americans. Funded by a $1.3-million award from the NCI — augmented with $320,000 in funding from the University of Florida Health Cancer Center — the center is administered by scientists from UF and Florida A&M University to provide research mentoring and training opportunities that burnish minority students’ and junior faculty members’ research skills, better preparing them for biomedical careers that could impact cancer health disparities in Florida’s minority communities.

“Ultimately, our goal is to address health disparities within minority communities by increasing the number of minority investigators who are focused on cancer research,” said principal investigator Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., a professor of pharmaceutical outcomes in the UF College of Pharmacy and the UF Health Cancer Center associate director for cancer disparities.

Odedina points to estimates that Florida will experience the third-highest number of new cancer cases and the second-highest number of cancer deaths nationwide this year. Statistics show that Florida’s black communities carry a disproportionate share of this cancer burden, and blacks experience the highest rates for cancer incidence, shorter survival times and greater likelihood of death in comparison with other racial and ethnic populations nationwide. Conversely, a recent report on the U.S. biomedical research work force found that in 2006, though blacks represented 14 percent of the U.S. population they earned only 2.5 percent of the science, math, engineering and technology, or STEM, doctoral degrees awarded to non-international students.

Odedina said the NCI P20 award is intended to help remedy these disparities. It is also the only NCI P20 partnership currently in Florida — cancer centers in only seven other states have received P20 awards, which are granted as part of the NCI’s initiative to address cancer health disparities through collaboration in cancer research.

“This award is actually just the beginning for the center; it’s a four-year exploratory grant to see how well and closely UF and FAMU collaborate to address the problem,” said Paul Okunieff, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center, a professor and chair of the UF department of radiation oncology and the Marshall E. Rinker Sr. Foundation and David B. and Leighan R. Rinker Chair. “Our hope is that it will progress to a multimillion-dollar NCI grant, which would enable us to significantly expand our efforts to address cancer disparities in Florida.”

For now, the center is focusing on three initiatives. The first will pair FAMU undergraduate students with senior cancer researchers at UF Health Cancer Center for training that provides intensive, hands-on experience developing research projects with the expectation of students making poster presentations and co-authoring papers submitted to peer-reviewed scientific journals. The center will also award one-year, postbaccalaureate bridge grants to minority students interested in applying to medical school or to a biomedical graduate program to give them additional time to prepare their applications and hone their research skills.

To help develop the careers of minority investigators, the center will provide pilot project grants to fund cancer-related health disparity research collaborations between UF Health Cancer Center senior faculty and FAMU junior faculty. The first of these has been awarded to Selina Darling-Reed, Ph.D., a FAMU assistant professor of pharmacy, to study the regulation of prostate cancer growth and metastasis, a cancer that is particularly deadly in black men. Darling-Reed’s UF mentor and the study’s principal investigator is Yehia Daaka, Ph.D., the Haskell Hess Professor and chair of the UF department of anatomy and cell biology. The goal of the pilot awards is to generate preliminary data leading to the FAMU researchers’ successful applications for National Institutes of Health and other funding.

“This initiative is an ideal opportunity to introduce, early in their careers, both minority students and junior faculty to a spectrum of research opportunities encompassing basic science, clinical medicine, community engagement, cancer advocacy and population sciences,” said P20 study principal investigator Renee Reams, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry in the FAMU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“It’s just an outstanding collaboration between Florida A&M University and UF and the research experiences and career development it offers for our minority students and faculty give me great pleasure,” Reams said.

About the Author

Lindy Brounley's picture

Lindy Brounley

Communications Director, UF Health Cancer Center

Lindy Brounley is a marketing and communications professional with more than 25 years of academic and corporate communications experience, specializing in strategic marketing and communications. She serves as communications director...Read More