NCCU, Duke partnership lands funding for cancer studies

A $2 million federal grant is backing work at N.C. Central University and Duke University to understand and educate the public on why two forms of cancer seem to hit blacks harder than harder than other groups.

The award from the National Cancer Institute is supporting the Cancer Disparities Research Partnership between the two schools, and builds on previous grants from such private-sector organizations as the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

At NCCU, a team led by pharmacy professor Kevin Williams will focus not just on developing treatments for prostate and inflammatory breast cancer, but on training future medical professionals in how to raise public awareness about the disease and its symptoms.

“We’re trying to train our students to get beyond the bench so they understand both the biological and social factors involved in cancer,” Williams said Wednesday during a breakfast meeting with reporters hosted by NCCU Interim Chancellor Johnson Akinleye. “These are basic researchers who are going to understand public health education.”

Funding from the grant will last for four years, and on the Duke end will flow through the Duke Cancer Institute. There, pathologist and surgery professor Gayathri Devi is Williams’ counterpart and like him is orchestrating both research and health-education ends of the project.

Williams sees the communication element as critical because inflammatory breast cancer is at once lethal, rare and hard to diagnose.

He said it affects only about 6 percent of breast cancer patients and disproportionately hits blacks and “younger women,” the latter meaning in the clinical world women who average 52 years old.

Compounding matters, it’s usually discovered late, and is “often misdiagnosed” because the victim doesn’t have the tell-tale lump. Mammograms typically don’t detect it, Williams said.

On the research front, Williams and Devi were part of a Duke/NCCU/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research team that recently published an article in the journal Carcinogenesis that reported finding evidence a chemical used in some common plastics, bisphenol A, contributes to the growth of inflammatory breast cancer cells and may also complicate the treatment of them.

“We really need to convey there’s a critical need to understand this disease,” said Williams, who trained in Great Britain and nowadays works in BRITE, N.C. Central’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise. “There’s not a lot of research, there’s not a lot of clinical trials, there’s not a lot of biospecimens.”

Seven-figure research grants are par for the course at Duke, but at NCCU with its much smaller budget they’re noteworthy enough that Akinleye singled out the award as an example of the progress BRITE and the state university’s similar Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute are making.

“These two centers continue to do very well in terms of research,” and are working on other health problems including diabetes and cardiac diseases, Akinleye said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg