Cancer Center Gets Joint Grant

Research effort with UMASS to target Boston-area health disparities

The Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCCC) and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, were jointly awarded a $4.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health earlier this week. The grant, to be paid over five years, will be used to combat health disparities in the Boston area.

“This marks the beginning of a bold new effort to solve one of health care’s most troubling problems—health disparities that affect so many Americans because of their backgrounds,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, D-Mass., said at a press conference announcing the grant last Tuesday.

“It’s high time we eliminated these disparities—and I’m proud that Dana-Farber and UMASS-Boston are stepping up to lead the effort,” Kennedy said.

Greer L. Glazer, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMASS-Boston and a researcher at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), said the grant will enable the first collaboration between the two institutions.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for a world-class institution with a focus on cancer care to team with a great university with a focus on serving ethnically and racially diverse populations and community outreach,” she said.

The collaborating institutions have a complicated problem to address. According to Karen M. Emmons, a faculty member at the DFCI and associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, black men are 2.5 times more likely to die of prostate cancer than white men in Boston, and black women have the highest death rate from cancer.

“There are pervasive and persistent disparities by race, gender, and ethnicity,” she said.

Inequalities extend into the realm of medical education and research as well.

“Minority groups represent 33 percent of the U.S. population, but only 12.3 percent of registered nurses are from minority backgrounds,” Glazer explained.

“I don’t think anybody disputes that there’s evidence of health disparities here in Boston and across the United States,” she said.

At the same time, consensus on how to combat these discrepancies has yet to be reached.

“Certainly we need a lot more work to figure out what to do about the disparities,” Emmons said. “We don’t know a lot about how to reduce them.”

The first step will be to develop a common strategy. According to Glazer, the team will use the $4.3 million to expand and develop medical training programs for minority students, support research, and promote community outreach.

Kennedy, Emmons, and Glazer said they all view the pairing of the DF/HCC and UMass-Boston as an important first step in eliminating inequalities across the spectrum of health care and education.

“UMASS brings tremendous expertise in a number of areas,” Emmons explained, especially in community outreach, an area in which DFCI has less experience. UMASS-Boston’s 800 nursing students—90 percent of whom remain in Boston after graduation, according to Glazer—also represent a substantial human resource in the Boston area.

Dana-Farber, in contrast, will contribute resources and expertise in battling cancer, Emmons said.

That the two institutions will capitalize on each other’s strengths is evident in the initiatives they intend to pursue.

For example, the team plans to develop a “fast-track” Ph.D. in nursing at UMASS-Boston.

The program, according to Glazer, will focus on minority students and will help nurses to develop advanced cancer-fighting skills, enabling them to earn their Ph.D.’s—and to enter the community—more quickly.

“Our goal is an increase in the number of minority students going into cancer research,” Glazer explained.

Glazer, like Emmons, said he is excited by the partnership’s potential to improve both health care and education in Boston, and to reshape the organizations involved.

“Both of our strengths will result in a greater whole,” she said.