Researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center have received a $13.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue probing the factors behind racial disparities in cancer and how to address them.

The five-year grant was awarded to the Philadelphia specialty hospital in partnership with Hunter College of the City University of New York. The grant, the second of its kind, continues funding for the institutions to keep working together with a geographic focus on Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

The institutions will also use the money to jump-start the careers of young researchers from diverse backgrounds by providing funding for pilot studies, and to invest in community engagement and education.

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Racial disparities in cancer exist in every aspect of the disease, from screening rates for prevention to outcomes such as death. Black Americans have the highest cancer death rate. American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans have liver cancer rates that are nearly double that of white Americans. Meanwhile, white Americans are the most likely to be diagnosed with a new cancer.

Grace Ma, the grant’s principal investigator at Fox Chase, attributed such disparities to a wide range of factors, such as biology, socio-economic, access, education, and language. Searching for comprehensive solutions requires breaking down silos among researchers, she said, which the original grant and its renewal has enabled.

“We feel that it is quite transformative,” Ma said.

Planting seeds

Fox Chase, one of two National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in Philadelphia, has been part of the Temple University Health System since 2012.

Fox Chase and Hunter were first awarded $13.5 million from the NCI to study racial disparities in 2018. Ma compared the successful collaboration to planting seeds. The institutions originally used the grant to fund three studies, then another three, and eventually more than 40 different research projects.

One of the studies found that Vietnamese Americans ages 50 and older, who live in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of Asian residents, were less likely to be screened for colorectal cancer. Ma and other coauthors concluded that educational campaigns about cancer screenings should target these neighborhoods in a culturally thoughtful way that takes into account what languages are spoken.

Biology and society

The new grant will fund studies examining practical steps to reduce racial disparities in cancer outcomes, said Camille Ragin, associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Fox Chase. For example, researchers will search for biological markers that can help explain why Black women are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.

“It’s about precision,” Ragin said who is also an investigator on the NCI grant.

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Researchers are exploring genetic testing, for example, and looking for specific biological markers in an ethnic group. But Ragin emphasized that society is also a factor, through what experts call social determinants of health. Economic status, education, and access to care are all examples of possible drivers of disparities in health care outcomes.

“We’re really trying to reduce disparities,” Ragin said. “The way this grant is approaching that is from multiple directions.”