Leading-edge experimental cancer treatments will be provided to an underserved, minority patient population in South Central Los Angeles under a new partnership between UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, cancer center officials announced Nov.19.
The partnership, funded in part by a two-year, $500,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute, seeks to address the unequal burden of cancer on the working poor and minority communities that Drew serves, said Dr. Judith C. Gasson, director of UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center.
"Studies have shown that individuals in underserved populations don't have access to the best cancer care and screening, due in part to cultural and economic barriers. As a result, their cancers often are advanced at diagnosis and their outcomes are poor," said Gasson, who worked for five years to make the Drew/UCLA Cancer Partnership Program a reality. "This collaboration will address the unequal burden that cancer places on those populations."
The partnership program will bring Jonsson Cancer Center clinical trials to Drew University patients, including studies of the newly targeted therapies that are showing promise in fighting cancer. It also seeks to strengthen Drew University's cancer research and training programs through collaborative research projects and partnerships with UCLA's world-renowned scientists. Additionally, the partnership program will recruit and train individuals who, in turn, will stay and work with residents in South Central's underserved communities.
"This affiliation will markedly enhance our research and clinical cancer treatment capability," said Dr. Keith Norris, Drew University's associate dean for research. "In general, cancer death rates among African Americans and Latino Americans are higher than other racial groups in the United States. With broader treatment options, we will be able to produce healthier outcomes and decrease morbidity and premature mortality."
Founded in 1966, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science serves about 1.5 million patients from the Crenshaw area south and east to Compton and Paramount. More than 30 percent of Drew patients live at or below the poverty level. About 23 percent of patients are black, while 58 percent are Latino. Drew also serves a large Asian population, Norris said.
Dr. Charles K. Francis, president of Drew University, called the partnership "an important step in closing the gap of racial disparities related to cancer incidence in South Central Los Angeles."
The disparities are well documented. In 1999 the Institute of Medicine released a report that examined cancer research and programs for ethnic minorities and the medically underserved. The report found that although many ethnic minority groups experience significantly lower levels of some types of cancer, other minorities had higher cancer incidence and mortality rates than those seen among whites.
African-American men develop cancer 15 percent more frequently than white men. Breast cancer rates among African-American women are not as high as those among white women, but African-American women are much more likely to die from the disease once it's detected. Cervical cancer rates are higher among Latino and Vietnamese-American women than among white women. Asian Americans are more likely to develop stomach and liver cancers than white Americans, while Native Americans have the lowest five-year cancer survival rates of any population.
In August the American Cancer Society issued a report on the cancer-risk profile in Latinos. The report found that Latinos have higher rates of some cancers and are more likely than whites to be diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer is more difficult to treat. Latinos, according to the report, have higher rates of stomach, liver and cervical cancers, and are less likely to use screening tests for colon, prostate and cervical cancers. Latinos also are more likely to be overweight and less likely to exercise than whites — factors associated with an increased cancer risk. They're also much more likely to smoke, the report found.
Some of these disparities can be explained by late diagnosis, lifestyle factors and access to health care, while others are attributed to language and cultural barriers that thwart proven ways to detect and prevent cancer when it is most treatable. For example, cervical cancer has been preventable since the introduction of the Pap smear in 1941. However, a recent study of 312,858 low-income women found that only 60 percent had ever had a Pap smear. According to the American Cancer Society, Latino women are the least likely of racial and ethnic groups to use screening tests like the Pap smear or mammography.
In an effort to address these disparities, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health recommended redesigning the clinical trials system to improve recruitment of minorities and strengthening training in minority colleges and universities. The Drew/UCLA partnership does both, Gasson said.
Unlike many Latino women she knows, Maria Gonzales, 52, of Bellflower, did get annual mammograms. And in February 2000, an abnormality showed up. In March 2000, Gonzales was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated at Drew. She now volunteers there, driving patients to appointments, visiting them in the hospital and even bringing them wigs when treatments result in hair loss.
Gonzales said she's excited about the new partnership program and the experimental treatments that will be available for patients there.
"There are a lot of Spanish-speaking people here that really need help," said Gonzales, who was treated with chemotherapy and radiation and remains cancer-free today. "They need to know all that is available for them and this will give them even more choices."
Barbara Hammett, a South Central Los Angeles breast cancer survivor who also volunteers at Drew, agreed. She spends much of her time educating patients, particularly African Americans, about clinical trials and urging them to join studies.
"How can you have these trials be comprehensive when Latinos and African Americans are not stepping up to the plate?" she asked.
In addition to providing experimental therapies to minority patients and strengthening the training system, the Drew/UCLA Cancer Partnership Program also will focus on finding innovative ways to prevent cancers before they happen. Grants will be offered to the brightest public health students from UCLA and Drew University to develop novel intervention programs. Two to three such community outreach projects will be funded per year, Gasson said.
"The war on cancer cannot be won until we correct this unequal burden," Gasson said.
UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center is composed of more than 240 cancer researchers and clinicians engaged in cancer research, prevention, detection, control and education. The center, one of the nation's largest comprehensive cancer centers, is dedicated to promoting cancer research and applying the results to clinical situations.
Located in the heart of inner-city Los Angeles, Drew University educates health professionals who have the unique skills, knowledge and commitment needed to improve the lives and health of the medically underserved. Through innovative research programs, Drew University faculty and students seek to address the health and social issues that strike hardest and deepest among inner city and minority populations.
For more information on UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, visit www.cancer.mednet.ucla.edu. For more information on Drew University, visit http://www.cdrewu.edu.