By Rose Hoban

North Carolina Health News, October 10, 2017 —

NC Central, Duke and UNC all receive dollars to find ways to reduce the disparities in health outcomes for minority communities and promote career paths for minority researchers.

Deepak Kumar has been at N.C. Central University for less than a year, but the molecular biologist has already left a big footprint on the Durham campus – a $16.3 million footprint.

This week, NCCU announced that Kumar will be the lead investigator for five-year, multicenter research initiative that will fund three major research studies into how biology, stress, nutrition and other factors could play into poor health outcomes for African Americans and other minorities.

In his lab, Deepak Kumar explains his research into molecular markers that could help identify prostate cancer tumors that are more likely to cause the deaths of African American men. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Health disparities … you cannot address them by just doing one thing, it has to be interdisciplinary,” Kumar said at a press event to announce the grant, given by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“You have to talk about access to health care, biology, social factors and that’s what this grant will entail to work collectively on all these issues.”

The grant will fund three large studies which will feature extensive collaboration between the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (BBRI) and other departments at Central, the UNC Research Campus in Kannapolis, multiple industry partners in the Research Triangle, and community based organizations, such as Lincoln Community Health Center that’s based near Central’s campus. It’s the largest single research grant NCCU has received to date.

“We are going to develop research structures, we are going to have shared research, shared resources developed that NCCU researchers can use, we are also going to open them up for the Triangle area organizations, and we are also going to leverage resources that researcher organizations have around the area,” Kumar said.

Promoting young careers

The funding will also provide about 25 small grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 that will go to recent doctoral graduates to help them with launching research careers.

Deepak Kumar (left) with his research assistants. Kumar says that in order to accomplish significant work on health disparities, it’s important to promote the careers of researchers of color who will care about answering those research questions. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Kumar is already working to bring along young researchers in his lab in the year since coming to Central from the University of the District of Columbia and Georgetown University. He currently employs four post-doctoral researchers, a masters-level technician and a handful of undergraduates to help with his research. There, he’s investigating biomarkers that could help identify strains of prostate and other cancers that tend to be more virulent in African Americans.

There’s a significant disparity in prostate cancer outcomes. African American men are far more likely to develop prostate cancer than whites, about twice the rate for men under 65 and the disease rate is about 50 percent higher for older black men than for whites.

The gap in death rates is even starker: African American men younger than 65 have a death rate about three times higher than white men. The gap narrows a little for men older than 65, but black men still have more than twice the death rate from prostate cancer than whites.

In Kumar’s lab, a handful of young researchers, mostly people of color, tap away at computers, take observations, and maintain lab equipment.

NCCU senior Kala Hayes takes notes on cell cultures in Deepak Kumar’s lab. Hayes says she’s interested in going to graduate school after completing a degree in pharmacological sciences. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

Kala Hayes, an undergraduate senior in pharmacological sciences, was taking observational notes on the cell cultures. She said she wants to go to graduate school in the sciences.

“If you want to really address health disparities, you have to develop minority researchers,” because those are the researchers who will care about disparities, Kumar explained.

The grant “will allow for the resources for the junior investigators and other minority investigators to pursue the questions they’re interested in.

“I think this is going to be a very significant development toward addressing health disparities,” he said.

New center at Duke funded

In another grant announced last week, NIH tapped Duke University researcher Kimberly Johnson to lead one of 12 new centers of excellence on minority health and disparities that were funded across the country. Johnson will lead the new Duke Center for REsearch to AdvanCe Healthcare Equity (REACH), receiving about $1.5 million for each of five years.

Duke researcher Kimberly Sherell Johnson, MD. Photo courtesy Duke University

According to the NIH website, Johnson’s center will focus, in part, on helping providers communicate better with patients during clinical encounters.

“African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities receive lower quality healthcare and have poorer health than Whites. The Duke Center for REsearch to AdvanCe Healthcare Equity (REACH Equity) will test interventions to improve the quality of care that minorities receive in the healthcare setting,” the NIH website reads.

The hope is that learning how to better communicate with minority patients and better identifying their needs will lead to greater patient participation in their own care.

That grant also has a component of helping to train the next generation of researchers, “through a research education and training pipeline program which includes undergraduates, medical and graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and early-career faculty,” to diversify the research workforce.

In the past, for example, Johnson has done research comparing the unmet needs of black and white patients who are seeing a doctor about their cancer pain. She found that more black cancer patients than white patients had untreated pain and proposed that doctors needed to better tailor their messages for different ethnic and racial groups.

Johnson’s experience proves out Kumar’s thesis that tapping minority students is the places to find researchers to study disparities.

In a 2015 interview, Johnson said she “didn’t first become a clinical investigator and then to decide to study health disparities. I first decided that reducing health disparities was important so I became a clinical investigator.”

“I can’t imagine studying anything else,” she said.

Sickle cell grant to UNC

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration also announced a $2 million, five-year grant to researcher Kenneth Ataga, the head of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program at UNC Chapel Hill.

UNC Chapel Hill medicine professor Kenneth Ataga who leads the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program. Photo courtesy: UNC School of Medicine

In recent work, Ataga tested an investigational drug that stretched the time between painful episodes experienced by patients with sickle cell disease, a genetic condition that primarily affects about one in every 500 African Americans.

In a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last December, Ataga reported that the drug almost halved the number of days these patients spent in the hospital.

Ataga’s FDA grant will focus on identifying early pathological changes in the kidneys of sickle cell patients.