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Scientists from Moffitt Cancer Center and Ponce Health Sciences University are working to tackle Hispanic cancer disparities.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanics in the United States. While cancer incidence is lower in the Hispanic community compared to those who identify as non-Hispanic white, disease burden and disparities significantly affect the Hispanic population.

Moffitt Cancer Center and Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico have been working since 2006 to better understand how cancer is impacting this ethnic group. The goal is to develop and implement cancer care strategies to improve outcomes and prevention. In September, the National Cancer Institute renewed grant funding, which will provide $6.8 million over the next five years to Moffitt and another $6.5 million to Ponce to continue their partnership to beat cancer.

Dr. Ken Wright, one of the principal investigators overseeing the partnership and the associate center director of Research Education and Training at Moffitt, says the relationship is about more than just cancer research and care; the two institutions want to ensure their impact is seen for decades to come.

“Our partnership is tackling Hispanic cancer disparities with a multipronged approach. We have joint programs for research, community outreach, education and training, and tissue banking,” Wright said. 

Investigating Disparities

image of staff in a lab

Staff in the Puerto Rico biobank lab process biospecimens.

Research is at the heart of the Moffitt and Ponce partnership. Scientists and clinicians from both institutions collaborate on studies investigating everything from genetic risks for developing certain cancers, to understanding what educational materials would successfully motivate a person to seek cancer screenings or receive preventive vaccines. The one thing all the research studies have in common is their focus on benefiting the Hispanic communities in Puerto Rico and Florida.

To assist with this research, the two institutions have established a biobank to collect tumors, tissue and other biospecimens from Hispanic cancer patients and healthy participants in Puerto Rico. Since its inception in 2008, the biobank has consented nearly 4,100 participants, representing 42 different cancer types and healthy “controls,” and collected more than 8,000 biospecimens.

“Researchers can use the biobank to identify genetic alterations or driver mutations that can help with developing new targeted therapies or screening and diagnostic strategies,” Wright said.

Some examples of joint research that has benefitted from the biobank include a melanoma study looking at a specific protein that when mutated not only interferes with tanning but may also be a strong predictor of skin cancer. Another aims to uncover the genetic factors that make prostate cancer more aggressive in Hispanic men and if there are pathways that can overcome treatment resistance among this population.  

Educating Health Care Professionals and the Community
Education is another important aspect and strength of this collaboration. Together, the two institutions are training the next generation of Hispanic scientists and physicians.

headshot of Dr. Ken Wright

Dr. Ken Wright, Associate Center Director, Research Education and Training

“Ponce students can study at their home institution or travel to Moffitt for their training, and vice versa,” Wright said. “So far, 195 trainees have participated in our education programs, which cover everything from basic research to surgical oncology.”

In addition to medical and research training, the partnership’s educational efforts extend into the community. Free educational events offered in Spanish are organized with the help of a community health educator. Held in both Puerto Rico and the Tampa Bay area, the programming focuses on cancer education and creates an open dialogue to build trust with the community. Previous event topics include how to reduce your risk of cancer by engaging in healthy lifestyle choices and participating in cancer research to improve future treatments for Hispanics.

“Working together, the Moffitt and Ponce teams have made significant progress to improve cancer disparities in the Hispanic community, but we look forward to continuing this important work,” Wright said.