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Disparities Fellowships: A Complementary Strategy to Address Cancer Health Disparities

Sumit Siddharth, PhD

The AACR is committed to help mitigate the disproportionate burden of cancer on certain segments of the population. As a cornerstone of its educational and advocacy efforts, the AACR recently released the inaugural AACR Cancer Disparities Progress Report. A complementary strategy is to increase diversity in the scientific workforce  — such is the impetus for AACR’s partnership with Genentech to fund the AACR-Genentech Health Disparities Research Fellowships.

2019 Fellowship Recipient Dr. Sumit Siddharth and 2020 Fellowship Recipients Drs. Rania Bassiouni and Tyler Allen are working on different projects to elucidate the molecular basis for disparities in clinical outcomes in African Americans (AA) who either have triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) or prostate cancer.

Rania Bassiouni, PhD

Higher rates of TNBC incidence and mortality are observed among AA women than Caucasian women. Based on in vitro studies of multiple cell lines and meta-analysis of a TNBC cohort, Dr. Siddharth is exploring the role of elevated NURR1 expression in disease aggressiveness in AA-TNBC in comparison to European-American TNBC. On the other hand, the loss of the tumor suppressor alpha-catenin has also been found to be associated with poor survival of AA-TNBC patients. Dr. Bassiouni is utilizing a racially-diverse panel of patient derived tissues to model to examine the role of alpha-catenin loss in disease aggressiveness and uncover potential therapeutic opportunities for AA TNBC.  

Tyler A. Allen, PhD

African-Americans also have a higher risk of and death rate from prostate cancer compared to other ethnic groups. Dr. Tyler Allen hypothesizes that this is due, at least in part, to race-related alternative RNA-splicing (ARS) and consequent impact on metastasis rate. To test this hypothesis, he is analyzing ARS variation in patient-matched primary and metastatic prostate cancer tissue. In addition, he will be analyzing tissues from equal numbers of patients of African and European ancestry to determine ancestry-related ARS differences between primary and metastatic tissue.

Cancer disparities, however, result from factors beyond those related to ethnicity, such as cultural and social factors. These cultural and social factors can explain at least in part, why refugees have been observed to be less likely participate in preventive measures such as cancer screening.

Serena Rodriguez, PhD, MPH

Serena Rodriguez, PhD, MPH, recipient of the 2019 AACR-Genentech Cancer Disparities fellowship, seeks to shed light on the significantly lower cervical cancer screening rates in women compared to American-born women. By analyzing existing cohort data, she is characterizing cervical cancer screening, follow-up, and outcomes among refugee women in Texas, with the goal of identifying intervention opportunities to improve screening, and eventually, changing the course of the disease in this population.

Dr. Rodriguez encapsulates the multiple benefits of these fellowships: “I am incredibly thankful to be awarded the AACR-Genentech Cancer Health Disparities Research Fellowship. This award supports a study I believe can make a significant impact on refugee health care and cancer health disparities. I am thankful for this opportunity to build my research portfolio as I move towards research independence.”