Briefing highlights role of research in eliminating cancer disparities.
The AACR recently hosted a congressional briefing titled “Reducing Cancer Health Disparities Through Research” which highlighted the important role of federally funded biomedical research in understanding cancer health disparities and developing targeted interventions to eradicate them. The speakers who participated in the briefing shared a broad range of perspectives on the role of research—from patients, government administrators, and researchers—and they underscored the need for Congress to provide sustained funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), and Barbara Lee (D-CA) served as honorary hosts of the event. All of these members of Congress have expressed their commitment to addressing health disparities.
Despite the remarkable progress in cancer research over the past several decades, some populations continue to suffer disproportionately from cancer incidence and mortality. “Even though cancer research has enabled tremendous advances against cancer, more than 1.6 million Americans will be diagnosed with this terrible disease this year, and a disproportionate amount of the suffering and deaths due to cancer will fall on racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and the medically underserved.” stated Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.), chief executive officer of the AACR. Foti affirmed the AACR’s long-standing commitment to the eradication of cancer health disparities by thorough research into their underlying causes. “The AACR is committed to working with the cancer research and policy communities, and with our distinguished lawmakers, to unravel these complexities and make cancer research count for all patients, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, or the communities in which they live.”
Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expressed his gratitude to the AACR for focusing on the importance of cancer research in eliminating health care disparities, which he called a “profound and devastating issue.” In his remarks to a standing room only crowd, Dr. Koh highlighted the past accomplishments and future initiatives of the HHS related to eliminating health disparities, including the recently unveiled HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (HHS Action Plan). The plan demonstrates the department’s commitment to continuously assessing the impact of its policies and programs focused on reducing racial and ethnic health disparities and achieving health equity. Dr. Koh also reviewed some of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act that were included as part of a broader effort to reduce and eliminate cancer disparities in minority and underserved populations.
Dr. Bill Nelson, director of the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and past co-chair of the AACR’s International Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities, moderated the panel discussion. Dr. Nelson emphasized the need for research to identify the underlying biological factors that contribute to differences in cancer incidence and mortality, and he noted that “the decline in funding for NIH and NCI could not come at a worse time, because the opportunities have never been greater for turning our growing scientific knowledge into effective strategies for eliminating the disparities in cancer that represent a major public health problem in our country. Restoring funding to the NIH and NCI is vitally important if scientists and physicians and other relevant stakeholders are to eliminate cancer health disparities.”
The distinguished panel also included Dr. Worta McCaskill-Stevens, chief of the Community Clinical Oncology Program and program director for the Minority-based Community Clinical Oncology Program at the NCI. Dr. McCaskill-Stevens highlighted some of the important initiatives taking place at the NCI, including her work with the Minority-based Community Clinical Oncology Program which supports infrastructure for the conduct of NCI-sponsored treatment, cancer control and prevention clinical trials in communities with significant minority populations.
The need for research funding was underscored by Mary Jackson Scroggins, a 16-year ovarian cancer survivor who stated that “one of the most powerful mechanisms for reducing and ultimately eliminating cancer and other health disparities is research.” Ms. Scroggins, a co-founder of In My Sister’s Care, an organization focused on eliminating health disparities and improving gynecologic cancer awareness and care for medically underserved women, went on to say that research must be facilitated and followed by fair, unbiased recruitment and enrollment into clinical trials, the equal application of the discoveries emerging from that research, and the delivery of, and access to, equal care.
In addition to the call for a continued investment in research, several panelists identified the importance of a diverse research workforce reflective of the same populations that are frequently subject to the worst cancer health disparities. Dr. Wayne Frederick recounted his journey from a young college student at Howard University to his current role as provost and chief academic officer at the same institution and how Howard is focused on increasing the pipeline of minority students entering graduate studies.
The AACR also houses the Minorities in Cancer Research membership group, which helps support the professional needs of minority cancer researchers in an effort to build a diverse scientific workforce.