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Training the Next Generation of Scientists to Find Solutions that Address Breast Cancer Disparities

This year’s Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Research Disparities Summit was made up of symposium-style lectures and discussions with leading experts in the field of health equity and breast cancer disparities research. As part of the 2-day Summit, held virtually on November 18-19 the Training Breast Cancer Researchers to Eliminate Disparities (TREND) program trainees presented their Komen-funded work and participated in discussions about improving health equity for breast cancer patients.

TREND trainees discussed their breast cancer disparities research projects, which spanned several disciplines and institutions, in TED-talk style presentations followed by questions from leading breast cancer and breast cancer disparities researchers in attendance. This event also offered a career development presentation from Komen Scholar alumni and recent recipient of the Amgen-funded Komen Disparities Research Supplemental grant, Dr. Harikrishna Nakshatri, Professor of Breast Cancer Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.

TREND is the only program designed to recruit and maintain the next generation of underrepresented breast cancer disparities researchers with the goal of improving breast cancer outcomes for these same populations. The program aims to:

  • Attract aspiring scientists from populations affected by disparities in breast cancer outcomes into research careers.
  • Provide the tools, mentoring and environment to train and retain the brightest researchers in breast health disparities.
  • Empower trainees with the skills and knowledge to translate research discoveries into clinical and public health practice that improves health equity.

“Being a part of the Health Disparities Training Program at the University of Chicago has helped me focus on the biological and socioeconomic factors that come together to cause breast cancer health disparities,” said TREND trainee Dr. Tamica Collins, Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago. “It has helped me broaden my horizons to better understand how to incorporate breast cancer disparities in my work.”

Dr. Collins is just one of over 140 trainees that has been supported by this program over the past 10 years. Her research focuses on triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive type of breast cancer diagnosed in Black women at nearly twice the rate as white women. Black women are also about 40 percent more likely than white women to die from breast cancer in the U.S. Although disparities are often considered in the context of race/ethnicity, groups defined by disability and gender/sexual identity may experience cancer disparities. Additionally, income levels, education and other characteristics have proven to play a role.

Those who experience breast cancer disparities often:

  • Are diagnosed later due to the inability to overcome systemic bias or racism that leads to suboptimal care.
  • Face socioeconomic barriers that delay access to life-saving care.
  • Experience different responses to treatments, which can lead to increased side effects, lack of efficacy and treatment failure.
  • Are not participating in clinical trials due to personal beliefs and misperceptions or from simply not being asked or not having access to trials.

So, what’s the solution? The field of disparities research has significant challenges, just one of which includes a shortage of people trained to solve the problem of breast health inequity. Additionally, data from the National Institutes of Health shows that scientists from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups — American Indian or Alaskan Native, African American or Black, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics or Latinos — were 0.2, 1.8, 0.1, and 4.3 percent respectively of all applicants for large NIH research grants. However, white applicants made up 64 percent of the applicant pool[1]. Komen believes lack of diversity in the research and oncology workforce excludes important perspectives that are necessary for solving disparities in health outcomes.

Training the next generation of breast cancer disparities and health equity researchers is an increasingly urgent need. Populations most negatively impacted by breast cancer need a voice – they  need individuals from their own communities representing them in the medical and research fields. “Those from underrepresented populations bring a unique perspective to the field. And, supporting early career researchers, like myself, is so important because I would otherwise be unaware of the opportunity to conduct this type of research,” said Markia Smith, PhD graduate student at the University of North Carolina. By supporting programs like TREND, Komen hopes to have a greater impact in those communities most adversely impacted by breast health disparities. Our goal is to save lives by meeting the most critical needs of patients.

Komen’s TREND program stands alone in answering an unmet need in breast cancer research and training, and it is one way the organization is trying to address the issue of breast cancer disparities.

Support through the Komen’s TREND Program has helped to establish and sustain research training programs at multiple universities across the country. The program supports graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and early career faculty members who are seeking careers dedicated to understanding and eliminating disparities in breast cancer outcomes across population groups.

The TREND program provides trainees the tools, skills and opportunities to successfully seek a discipline they are passionate about. “Having the support of Komen and knowing I will be supported in pursing research to help eliminate disparities in women of color is so important,” said Zahna Bigham, M.D., Ph.D. Graduate Student at Tufts University.

You can read more about the Komen Breast Cancer Research Disparities Summit (sponsored by Amgen, Bank of America, Ford, Merck and Walgreens) here, and If you want to make an impact and support lifesaving research programs like TREND, click here.

[1] United States Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Committees: NIH Research – Action Need to Ensure Workforce Diversity Strategic Goals are Achieved. GAO-18-545. Aug 10, 2018.