Last Friday, February 10th, I had the honor of participating in a campus visit by Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center (LCCC) drew the attention of the White House through its outstanding translational research and the breakthroughs that Lineberger is famous for. Dr. Prabhakar specifically came to Carolina on Friday to meet with scientists, researchers, and others on the frontlines in the fight against cancer, and to discuss how the Biden-Harris Administration’s Cancer Moonshot is progressing to end cancer as we know it.
Many universities are making progress in cancer research, but why is Carolina different? Our culture of collaboration is what sets us apart. Dr. Prabhakar heard from researchers from the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and LCCC who work alongside one another every day to find the best possible solutions. And as importantly, she heard from our community partners, leaders from state agencies like the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), and from patients themselves who are the best testimony to our lifesaving, far-reaching work.
During President Biden’s recent State of the Union Address, he referenced the moonshot and called for the reauthorization of the National Cancer Act, proposing efforts to provide patients with greater access to cancer treatments as well as strategies to step up anti-smoking programs. These initiatives pair nicely with the innovative research taking place on our campus, and Dr. Prabhakar’s visit provided the opportunity to highlight the progress we are making every day to improve cancer outcomes.
I was delighted by the agenda, which showcased Carolina’s unique brand of collaboration that allows fundamental science researchers working on drug development to truly integrate with clinicians, population scientists, and community stakeholders to ensure that findings make their way from the lab to clinics and communities. The teams that presented were comprised of faculty from different departments, schools, and disciplines alongside community members and patients who are working together to make discoveries that save lives. The visit focused on four topics: “Moonshot-Initiated Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Programs,” “Moonshot-Initiated Cancer Screening Efforts,” “Cancer and Nutrition,” and “Obesity and Endometrial Cancer.”
The last of these projects was presented by UNC Lineberger Endometrial Cancer Center of Excellence Director Victoria Bae-Jump, and Health Behavior Assistant Professor Marissa Hall. Joining them for an engaging discussion on cancer disparities was Gillings Interim Associate Dean for Research Andrew Olshan, UNC Nutrition Research Institute Director Stephen Hursting, Health Behavior and Nutrition Professor Deborah Tate, and OBGYN Professor and LCCC’s Associate Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Wendy Brewster.
During that presentation and discussion, we learned that Black women in North Carolina die from endometrial cancer at twice the rate compared to white women – and the causes are complex, including differences in social determinants of health, access to care, prevalence of cancer subtypes with worse outcomes, along with biologic factors, like the microbiome and epigenome. The team’s translational approach is novel and impactful. Obesity is an important risk factor that is driving an increase in endometrial cancer. The team is combining a population-based endometrial cancer study looking at the role of biologic and health services that may underlie cancer disparities with a behavioral study examining the role of weight gain prevention. This approach is making inroads towards addressing the root causes of endometrial cancer.
Dr. Parabhaker also heard from Dr. Betsey Tilson, NC DHHS health director and the chief medical officer, who attested to our deep partnership with the state. Carolina researchers are working in every N.C. county, in rural communities, and through partnerships with key stakeholders, including Fort Bragg, to reach underserved populations. We are focusing on prevention; encouraging people to quit smoking and seek early screening. Through studies that show the causes of cancer, we are working with people most at-risk for developing cancer to prevent the worst from happening.
Research that engages community and patient stakeholders allows us to make critical impacts and, importantly, address the issues most important to people living with and surviving cancer. The attention to expansion of medical care into rural communities, the focus on persistent poverty populations, and community outreach for study enrollment means that we will have a better chance to successfully address the significant cancer inequities in our communities. What we learn here in North Carolina can have big impacts for the country, given the size, geography, and diversity of our state – we are truly a model for America.
The overarching goal of the Cancer Moonshot is to cut the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years and to improve the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer. The collaborative, translational, and innovative approach to cancer science, care, treatment, and prevention on our campus is inspiring and impressive. I am confident that Carolina can be a place that will make the moonshot a reality.