Durham County

Why are blacks hit harder by some diseases? NCCU is trying to find out.

Deepak Kumar, director of the Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute at N.C. Central University, is leading a new effort to create a research center at the university to study health disparities. A five-year, $16.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, is funding it.
Deepak Kumar, director of the Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute at N.C. Central University, is leading a new effort to create a research center at the university to study health disparities. A five-year, $16.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, is funding it. The Herald-Sun

N.C. Central University has landed a five-year, $16.3 million grant to help learn why cardiac disorders, breast cancer and obesity hit African Americans harder than other people.

The money will also help the university build its research infrastructure, funding facilities that professors, post-docs and graduate students can use in their own work even if they’re not involved in the projects the grant’s paying for directly.

“It hits on all the major areas we want to emphasize here at NCCU,” Interim Provost Carlton Wilson said of the grant, which came from an arm of the National Institutes of Health. “This is a five-year funded project, but with the proper infrastructure, this will be very sustainable on into the future.”

N.C. Central is one of seven universities around the country, and the only one in North Carolina, to receive a new grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The federal agency expects to channel $122 million into setting up research centers nationwide.

At NCCU, Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute Director Deepak Kumar will serve as the grant’s principal investigator. That means he’s in overall charge, but he stressed that a lot of people inside and out of the university’s science departments are going to be involved.

“You can’t address them by doing just one thing” Kumar said of the quandaries embedded in the issue. “It has to be very interdisciplinary. That is what this grant is going to entail, to work collectively to address health disparities.”

Racial and ethnic minority groups will make up half of the U.S. population in three decades, according to the Census Bureau. Life expectancy has improved for blacks, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports:

▪ African Americans ages 18-49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease than whites.

▪ African Americans ages 35-64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites.

Hard science

The centerpiece of the work at NCCU will focus on hard science.

Professor Mildred Painter, for example, heads up the team that’s getting funding to help figure out why black men are susceptible to kidney diseases and cardiac-related ailments that may have links to stress.

Professor Jodie Fleming’s lab is in line for money to continue its work on breast cancer. And a team working under professor Maxwell Gyamfi is looking at how a particular type of protein receptor may contribute to obesity.

But Kumar wants to spark some new research projects too, by supplying $10,000 up to $50,000 to professors and post-docs who need money to dive into a problem but aren’t ready yet to file for a big outside grant from the NIH or other group.

“We are trying to develop the critical infrastructure and the [research] workforce from the ground up,” Kumar.

Kumar was hired on as director of the BBRI in November 2016, coming to N.C. Central from the University of the District of Columbia. The application for the $16.3 million followed in March. It scored well enough in NIH preliminary that Kumar said NCCU officials had been optimistic about its chances, but nothing was certain until it passed a final review at the federal agency.

The money will now flow to N.C. Central in annual increments, a standard procedure in federal budget that gives officials in Washington a way out should a major disaster or some other unexpected change in budget priorities intervene. For fiscal 2017-18, the university’s getting $3.7 million.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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