Black man wearing a mask at the doctor's office
A joint venture by VCU Massey Cancer Center and Virginia State University to reduce cancer disparities marks the first time that a Virginia-based cancer center and a historically Black college or university have joined forces to win an NCI "team science" grant. (Getty Images)

Joint effort between Massey Cancer Center, Virginia State University aims to reduce cancer disparities

The two institutions are teaming up as part of a $1.7 million National Cancer Institute “team science” grant to create a program that’s the first of its kind in Virginia.

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Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and Virginia State University have received a “team science” grant from the National Cancer Institute focused on reducing cancer disparities and providing hands-on research opportunities to students who are historically underrepresented in science. The total award amount is $1.7 million over the course of four years. 

This is the first time that a Virginia-based cancer center and a historically Black college or university have joined forces to win such a grant, which will enable cross-institutional work among multiple teams of scientists, robust community engagement and in-person research training at an NCI-designated cancer center for budding scientists whose home institution is classified as an HBCU.

“This award will allow us to engage closely with both our neighboring HBCU and the community to infuse our science with new ideas,” said principal investigator Robert Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at Massey, senior associate dean for cancer innovation and a professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. “It will also allow both universities to give back, using the resources we’re blessed with here at Massey and the historical knowledge and connections of VSU — acting locally with the potential for global impact.”

The principal investigator for VSU is M. Omar Faison, Ph.D., an associate vice provost of research and economic development and interim dean of the VSU College of Graduate Studies.

“We are proud to have a seat at the table to take part in this research that so heavily affects our Black American population, and to further expand the reach of Massey Cancer Center,” Faison said. “Through a combination of mentorship and access to resources, this grant allows us the opportunity to provide meaningful professional development experiences to VSU faculty and students who may be interested in exploring population health for more bench-oriented science in the context of cancer.” 

The grant’s first project, led by Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., a professor of human and molecular genetics at the VCU School of Medicine and a Massey Cancer Biology program member, will investigate the genetics behind why Black Americans seem to be more susceptible to liver and gastrointestinal cancers.

Preliminary data points to a gene that's part of an inflammatory pathway, so with the recommendation of Rafat Siddiqui, Ph.D., an associate professor of food and nutrition science who is leading this project on the VSU side, the team will explore the anti-cancer effects of naturally derived anti-inflammatory compounds, such as ginger extract or blueberry extract, on cancer cell lines. 

These natural compounds are gentler on the liver than traditional cancer drugs, so they may prove useful for patients who can't tolerate the full dose of existing drugs due to liver damage sustained over the course of their disease. 

“The collaboration really is a two-way street,” Sarkar said. “We’re coming with the more molecular-level expertise, whereas VSU is coming with a theoretical therapeutic perspective. It's a true partnership.” 

The second project, led by Maria Thomson, Ph.D., centers on community outreach in Petersburg, where life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average and cancer is the leading cause of premature death. Thomson is an associate professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine and a member of Massey’s Cancer Prevention and Control program. The project lead for VSU is associate professor of psychology Larry Keen, Ph.D.

“Virginia State has deep roots in the community,” said grant co-principal investigator Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., a professor of health behavior and policy at the VCU School of Medicine and the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control. “I think that by bringing together VSU’s mission as a land-grant university with our expertise in cancer, we can really tackle health disparities in a meaningful way.” 

Massey and VSU will build and strengthen local partnerships with federally qualified health centers, the public library, barber shops and other community centers to collect in-depth data about Black men’s beliefs around screening for colorectal cancer, as well as looking for patterns in who gets screened and who doesn’t.

Using this information as a guide, the team will develop interventions to increase rates of screening for colorectal cancer, which is highly preventable and disproportionately affects Black men in particular.

For many years, Thomson, Sheppard and others at Massey have been doing community outreach around colorectal cancer through the National Cancer Institute’s Screen to Save program, but they noticed participation is low among Black men, likely because the curriculum simply isn’t designed to target them. This project aims to change that.

“Screen to Save is a program that holds promise in reaching diverse communities, but it lacks interventions designed to engage Black men specifically,” Thomson said. “Bringing together the knowledge and experience of VSU, Massey and community partners, this is a great opportunity to create a tailored program that will be engaging and be useful.”  

Additional investigators on the grant include John Fife, Ph.D., of VSU; and Joseph Landry, Ph.D.Seung Lee, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Preston, Ph.D.Maghboobah Mosavel, Ph.D.Dipankar Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., and Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D., of VCU.

This story was originally published by Massey Cancer Center under the headline “Cancer center and neighboring HBCU receive $1.7M to increase health equity and research pipeline diversity.”