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Large grant helps NMSU probe cancer disparities

A large, comprehensive grant called the U54 is letting New Mexico State University increase and expand its collaboration with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle (FHCRC and commonly known as "the Hutch").

NMSU faculty members in health science, biology, molecular biology, chemistry and computer science already are working on funded partner projects with the FHCRC, said Mary O'Connell, professor, Plant and Environmental Sciences at NMSU. O'Connell, program director of the grant, said partner projects between NMSU and FHCRC faculty members can run for three years. While many projects are under way, O'Connell will call this spring for additional projects for the grant's latter years.

"What I see as an outcome of our collaboration is a more intimate interaction of the expertise at NMSU with the complementary expertise at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center," O'Connell said. "The two institutions will work together to solve the science of that disparity while improving health care conditions for people who live in this region and people who live in Washington's Yakima Valley."

Also, she hopes to expand the involvement of the University of New Mexico, which has a cancer treatment center in Las Cruces, creating a formal three-way partnership among NMSU, UNM and the FHCRC that's recognized by the National Institutes of Health.

The U54 grant will help researchers discover why some races have higher mortality rates than others to certain types of cancer.

Black men suffer and die from prostate cancer at a far greater rate than men in other races, O'Connell said. Black women are more susceptible than women of other racial groups to "triple-negative" breast cancer, a type of cancer with three different molecular markers or characteristics, making it deadlier than other breast cancers. Meanwhile, Latino populations show a higher prevalence in cervical, liver and stomach cancers.

O'Connell said several reasons may explain these disparities.

"The number one carcinogen is poverty," she said. "A lack of access to health care or insurance, ignorance and an unconscious bias from health care providers that prevent some minority groups from getting the best standard of care also are reasons for the stark contrast in statistics among minorities."

Working at the FHCRC has given many NMSU students some invaluable experience, O'Connell said. So far, about 145 students from this university have spent time working at the Seattle cancer center, staying anywhere from a few weeks to up to nine months.

"Students from NMSU get to be taught cancer biology from faculty at the Hutch," O'Connell said. "Three Nobel laureates have worked at the Hutch and doing research in that environment enriches the educational experience of our students."

She says if more minority students became scientists, advances in cancer science may come about more quickly.

"The concept is that if you're from a particular group, you think of problems your group experiences first," O'Connell said. "And if you have more scientists from a particular group, they will pay more attention to those topics because the topics are more germane to them. If we had more Hispanic Ph.D.s working on cancer science, we may have more advances on the cancers that cause death in that population.

"The other concept is that science is done best by diverse teams. Different views, different ideas and different people working on a problem will give you a more robust, stronger response to that problem," she said.

O'Connell said the grant "marches in line" with NMSU's land-grant mission because it will help alleviate health disparities of New Mexico citizens at multiple levels.

"We have not traditionally been the health care deliverer for New Mexico, but the role of NMSU in training students, doing research and linking the extension activities of the state through NMSU fully justifies this work as a project for NMSU to be handling," she said.