Duke launches Global Cancer Initiative

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 07:30 PM

Duke Dr. John Bartlett has spent much of his career specializing in infectious diseases and visiting Tanzania, where he would care for patients with HIV or AIDS.

He would notice that some of his patients also were suffering from cancers that were preventable and treatable, such as cervical cancer or Burkitt lymphoma, which can be eradicated by chemotherapy and is rare outside of Africa.

Duke is starting a new initiative to help bring cancer prevention and treatment to clinics around the world. The Global Cancer Initiative, announced right before World Cancer Day on Feb. 4, is uniting researchers from Duke’s Global Health and Cancer institutes.

More people die from cancer in low- and middle-income countries than in wealthier nations due to the lack of trained oncologists, clinical services and limited ability to diagnose and treat the disease early, according to the Duke Global Health Institute.

There is a growing awareness that noncommunicable diseases such as cancer are surpassing communicable diseases in cause of death around the world, said physician and DGHI faculty member Nelson Chao, who will lead the initiative.

Chao said initiative discussions began about a year and a half ago, and he estimated that more than $1 million has been allocated for the global project, which would fund two faculty positions, for which the search is about to start, as well as pilot programs.

In addition to expanding cancer research, clinical care and education in poor countries, the initiative will train health providers through exchange programs.

Duke is one of the first universities to launch such a partnership, Chao said, and in five years, he hopes to see the Global Cancer Initiative team grow to 35 people across disciplines.

The official kickoff will be May 14 when Duke holds its Global Cancer Symposium, which will bring cancer researchers from around the world to Duke campus.

Chao said the first goal is to learn how to treat and prevent some of these common cancers by partnering with other countries.

“And second is to learn from them, that what works there could potentially work here as well,” he said.

Duke’s current partners in global cancer research include the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center and Bugando Medical Center in Tanzania and Tata Medical Center in Kolkata, India, according to DGHI. Plans are now underway to also expand these partnerships to China and Brazil.

Bartlett, co-director of the Duke Center for AIDS Research and DGHI associate director for research, said the initiative will focus first on cervical cancer, lymphoma and breast cancer. 

He said for more than a decade, Duke has had one to five full-time faculty members in Tanzania at any given time, where Duke researchers collaborate with Tanzanian medical staff to help further their cancer care and research.

“We want our research agenda and our collaborative efforts within the Global Health Institute to reflect the changing global burden of disease,” Bartlett said. “We need to be prepared to evolve and to be responsive to that evolution.”