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DF/HCC-UMass Boston partnership to focus on health disparities, cancer research

The Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC) and the University of Massachusetts Boston have received a five-year, $4.3-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a strategy to reduce health disparities in Boston neighborhoods and help further diversify the region’s biomedical leadership through new research and training projects.

At a press conference held in the Smith faculty lounge at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) on Nov. 29, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and leaders from both partnering organizations announced the award. It brings together UMass Boston’s record of research and service to underserved populations and the collective research and clinical expertise of DFCI, four of its fellow Harvard teaching hospitals, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

“This grant recognizes a bold and visionary partnership between one of the nation’s premier research institutions and our city’s great public university,” Kennedy said at the conference. “It will enable us to make great progress in addressing the critical problem of minority health disparities, attract new talent into the healthcare professions, and maintain Boston’s position at the forefront of medical research.

“Through leadership like this, we’ll raise the awareness and the availability of better healthcare in underserved communities throughout Boston, and encourage people to obtain the care they need when they need it,” Kennedy continued. “Hopefully, you will be a model for the nation in dealing more effectively with these seemingly intractable issues.” 

The main objective of the five-year award, known as a U-56 grant, is to address health disparities in minority populations, and to improve research, training, and outreach opportunities for students, nurses, and scientists of color. Kennedy stated that although African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians make up one-third of the nation’s populace, they account for just 6 percent of its doctors and 7 percent of its nurses.

Specifically, the NIH award will help:

  • Develop collaborative research programs that stimulate basic cancer research at UMass Boston and health disparities research at both the university and DF/HCC.
  • Increase and enhance cancer-focused training opportunities for minority students, postdoctoral fellows, and nursing PhD students.
  • Increase community outreach, cancer education, and the promotion of evidenced-based programs.
  • Develop shared mechanisms for minority faculty recruitment and career development.

“Significant strides have been made during the past century to reduce the burden of many diseases, including cancer, but the same cannot be said about the efforts to eliminate health disparities,” said DFCI President Edward J. Benz Jr., MD, also director of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. “This is changing, however, as programs such as this partnership are focusing greater attention on cancer prevention, early detection, and equal care, regardless of social status, race, or ethnicity.

“Today is a celebration,” he told attendees, “but it is also a challenge to all of us to build on this success and see improvements in health outcomes across the board for our citizens.”

Also on hand were research and nursing leaders from the two grantees, as well as Massachusetts State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a longtime advocate for healthcare reform and disparities research in the Commonwealth.

Foundation for future grants

The grant allows the partnership to compete for additional funding in the future. Providing scientific and administrative leadership for the partnership are UMass Boston Professor Rick Jensen, PhD, the Alton Brann Distinguished Professor of Physics, Biology, and Mathematics, and Karen Emmons, PhD, associate director of the Initiative to Eliminate Cancer Disparities at DF/HCC and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. They will coordinate a team of accomplished scientists, high-level administrators, and dedicated staff from both institutions.

“As a physician and someone who has spent much of his career in Boston’s healthcare community, I know firsthand the critical need to resolve health disparities that affect Boston residents,” UMass Boston Chancellor Michael F. Collins, MD, said. “This project will squarely focus the attention of physicians, professors, researchers, and students on the goal of improving healthcare for every resident of the city.”

One student who has already enjoyed the fruits of such efforts is Erick Kamau, a Kenyan native and UMass Boston student who took part in a research internship here through the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center’s CURE Program (Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences). He is now planning for medical school, and is considering pediatric oncology as a specialty.

“I stand here as one of the first from these two institutions who has benefited from the partnership,” said Kamau, who worked under Dana-Farber’s Hsiu-Ching Chang, PhD, and Ellis Reinherz, MD. “I hope and pray that five or 10 years from now, we’ll look back and see many more people who have done so – and are now making an impact in the community.”

Photo: Sam Ogden