UChicago awarded grant to train researchers focused on eliminating breast cancer disparities

The number of deaths from breast cancer have declined significantly over the last several decades. However, many populations within the U.S. and across the globe have not benefited from these improvements in mortality as much as other groups have. This unequal burden of cancer felt by specific population groups, also known as disparities, is a major healthcare challenge and one that hits home. In Chicago, the most recent figures show the breast cancer death rate among black women is 40 percent higher than that of white women.

The causes of cancer disparities are not well understood, although a wide array of biological, cultural, socioeconomic, environmental, and lifestyle factors have been implicated. Understanding how these factors work together to impact cancer incidence, mortality, and survival is key to reducing or eliminating disparities in breast cancer and other types of cancer.

Researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center have been among the leaders in identifying these factors and developing strategies to address them. And now, for the first time, the Comprehensive Cancer Center has been recognized for its leadership in training young scientists committed to reducing breast cancer disparities.

Susan G. Komen, one of the nation's leading breast cancer organizations, recently awarded the Comprehensive Cancer Center a three-year, $405,000 grant to establish the University of Chicago Graduate Training Program in Breast Cancer Disparities. The program is led by M. Eileen Dolan, PhD, professor of medicine and associate director for education of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Suzanne Conzen, MD, professor of medicine. The support will provide a one-year training experience for up to three master's or PhD students per year over the next three years. "Suzanne and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to support the training of the next generation of researchers in breast cancer health disparities," said Dolan. "Fundamental changes are needed to close the gap in the breast cancer death rate and funding through Susan G. Komen will help advance interdisciplinary projects aimed at achieving a deeper understanding of the social, biological, and genomic determinants of health disparities. Providing our students with a well-rounded education through exposure to the perspectives of patients, community activists, researchers, and physicians will allow our students to identify critical problems and potential solutions."

Because tackling cancer disparities requires a broad, comprehensive approach, training in this program will extend far beyond the laboratory bench. In addition to their research projects, trainees will participate in community outreach, clinical exposure, leadership training and policy engagement to better appreciate and learn how to overcome the barriers that breast cancer patients from minority groups face. Additionally, breast cancer advocates Shirley Mertz and Alicia Cook will serve as essential trainee mentors and program advisors.

The program aims to identify the best and brightest students committed to a career in breast cancer disparities research, and to provide them with the tools they need for success in the field. The first class of selected trainees includes:

  • Marianna Johnson, a PhD candidate in the Committee on Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition (Mentors: Matthew Brady, PhD, and Suzanne Conzen, MD)
  • David Press, a PhD student in Public Health Sciences (Mentor: Dezheng Huo, MD, PhD)
  • James Crowe, a master's student in the Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy in the School of Social Service Administration (Mentor: James Zhang, PhD)