Academics & Research News

Cancer research aims to break down racial barriers to health

Members of a collaboration between UH and UT’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center research how the disease affects minorities. | Courtesy of Lorraine Reitzel

For chair of the Department of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences at the University of Houston College of Education Lorraine Reitzel, it is important to promote diversity in science.

UH has formed a collaboration, known as U-HAND, with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to create a program to reduce cancer disparities. Reitzel is one of the partnership directors.

“It really would have the ability to change people’s lives,” Reitzel said. “If we can get more people into cancer disparities research, then we have the opportunity to affect the lives of many people that they will ultimately touch throughout their career.”

This joint endeavor between these institutions is dedicated to the elimination of cancer inequities experienced by Hispanics and African-Americans through prevention efforts that reduce social and physical cancer risk factors, Reitzel said.

Reitzel said U-HAND’s objective is to create excellence in educational programming, and innovation in research will be focused in two key ethnic Houston communities: the Third Ward and the East End.

“We can help add to the next generation of scientists, public health people and folks in medicine who can have an influence on facilitating health equity with regard to cancer,” Reitzel said.

A personal connection

Reitzel’s mother was never able to quit smoking, so their family was constantly exposed to secondhand smoke, she said. Both of Reitzel’s parents died of complications and conditions related to tobacco use, and Reitzel herself is a cancer survivor. Reitzel said she believes this created a personal connection between herself and her research.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. Cancer doesn’t care who you are,” Reitzel said.

Prior to her start of employment at UH in 2013, Reitzel worked for the department of health disparities research at MD Anderson since 2005. She met Dr. Lorna McNeill, and the two have been working together since 2006 to demonstrate cancer disparities related to tobacco, diet and physical activity.

For the past eight months, a group from UH and a group of from MD Anderson met every week for a few hours to begin applying for a grant from the National Cancer Institute’s Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity.

This is a four-year grant that enables faculty members from institutions with underserved health disparity populations, like UH, and NCI-designated cancer centers, like MD Anderson, to train scientists from diverse backgrounds in cancer research to effectively deliver cancer advances to underserved communities.

Reitzel said this process was long and thorough and was not definitive until the NCI had sent a notice. U-HAND received the notice on Sept. 22.

“This was a big application, and it involved a lot of both universities,” Reitzel said.

Targeting racial inequity

Reitzel added that another intent of the program is to cut down racial lines. African-American men, she said, are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and die from prostate cancer, and African-American women are more likely to have negative outcomes as a result of breast cancer compared to white women.

“While black men and white men smoke at the same rate, black men are much less likely to quit smoking relative to white men,” Reitzel said. “That creates a disparity whereby when more black men continue to smoke, they are more likely to get cancers that are related to tobacco.”

Reitzel said U-HAND hopes to capitalize on the fact that UH has a diverse student body. There is a need for science to reflect the population it is interested in helping, and current science mostly reflects white men, she said.

“Most research that society hears about is just broad generalizations,” said accounting sophomore Emely Martinez. “By looking into specific racial groups, we can bring more awareness to cancer and the severity of it in society today.”

U-HAND will review publications from undergraduate to postdoctoral students coming out of the of educational and research programming it provides.

“We feel like that broad education is really the best for preparation in your career,” Reitzel said.

The grant also provides a stipend for students working in the program.  

“We’re hopeful that students we reach go on to graduate school careers and do their own research in cancer prevention or in other cancer-related health disparities,” Reitzel said.

Student involvement

The grant also funds two pilot projects. UH’s pilot project principal investigator is Daphne Hernandez, an early stage investigator at the UH Department of Health and Human Performance. Reitzel said this grant provides Hernandez with two years of funding to research the correlation between childhood stress and cancer risks in Hispanic adults.

“This is a great opportunity to get hands-on experience that will set students apart when applying for graduate school,” Hernandez said. “They will see different arenas of research that they are not exposed to in class.”

The other pilot project will be conducted by researchers at M.D. Anderson and will focus on interventions for African-American men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer but have been recommended to watch and wait before receiving treatment.

“It’s a slow developing cancer, and it’s possible that not everyone needs immediate chemotherapy and other treatment,” Reitzel said. “You could live out your life, and it wouldn’t progress quickly, but knowing you have cancer is a huge stressor for people.”

M.D. Anderson will work with African-American couples to provide them with an intervention that attempts to decrease their stress and risk of cancer.

Reitzel said that the program’s ripple down effect will benefit those involved and those affected by the research.

“The idea is that we want people to learn about aspects of cancer research then eventually they’ll go and be independent on their own,” Reitzel said.

U-HAND is in the process of creating an informational website about the program, but for now they welcome any all inquiries on the group’s Twitter page.

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