Closing the Cancer Gap

Closing the Cancer Gap

Improving Cancer Care, For Everyone

Cancer remains one of our most challenging health issues, affecting people regardless of race or ethnicity. However, studies show that those very characteristics can influence a person’s risk of developing certain types of cancer, and how well they fare against it.

These disparities have arisen in part because research hasn’t historically included enough minority participants. A new collaborative project seeks to change that.

“Cancer research, like the rest of medicine, faces a major challenge right now,” said Gregg Fields, Ph.D., executive director of FAU’s Institute for Human Health and Disease Intervention (I-Health). “We know certain diseases, including cancer, hit some groups harder than others, and that some treatment strategies aren’t equally effective for everyone.”

Researchers at FAU and Memorial Healthcare System’s cancer institute intend to address this deficit by collecting tissue samples and information from a pool of primarily Black and Hispanic patients. Their contributions will provide the raw material for studies to understand the disease’s biology and develop new treatment strategies.

This project leverages the combined research and medical expertise of Memorial’s Cancer Institute and FAU (MCIFAU), which is recognized by the state’s Department of Health as a Florida Cancer Center of Excellence.

The collection will represent most solid tumors, a category that includes all but blood, bone and lymphatic malignancies. Teams are preparing to collect two types of solid tumors, breast and pancreatic cancer. The partners, along with Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida, are seeking funding to broaden their effort. Once collected, samples will be housed in FAU’s Clinical Research Unit on the Boca Raton campus.


South Florida is a natural location for more inclusive research. At MCI, which serves Broward and Palm Beach counties, 19 percent of patients are Black and another 19 percent are Hispanic. These demographics make promoting equity in care a priority for the institute, said Luis Raez, M.D., MCI’s medical director and chief scientific officer.

“For many years, we assumed ‘If a treatment works for whites, it works for everybody,” Raez said. “We were wrong, because there are tremendous disparities between whites, Asians, Blacks and Hispanics.”

A small study at MCI found that minority lung cancer patients fared more poorly than white patients after being treated with a drug that helps the body’s immune system fight the disease.

Social factors, such as income level or access to health insurance, do not fully explain disparities like this, Raez said. “There are biological determinants that need to be addressed.”


To begin to correct this long-standing bias, researchers must make a concerted effort to reach out to people who are traditionally underrepresented in medical research.

Thanks to a $220,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Broward to focus on breast cancer, a team from MCI has begun seeking out such women. Those who participate receive screening and treatment. They have the option of contributing blood — and if they have breast cancer, tumor tissue — to support the research effort.

Once samples are collected, researchers at FAU will step in. They plan to search for genetic differences, such as changes in a single letter of the DNA code, unique to Black and Hispanic women. By creating genetic profiles of patients and following how the women fare, researchers hope to better understand how genetic factors can play into disparities.

The findings could help explain a racial paradox within this field: While Black women develop breast cancer slightly less frequently than white women, the disease is more deadly for them. The reasons appear quite complex, but research has implicated biology, including ancestry and the control of gene expression.


Researchers also are preparing to recruit patients with pancreatic cancer, which is among the deadliest forms of cancer. For this project, FAU and MCI have joined forces with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. At this lab, scientists are taking their studies of patients’ cancer cells a step further, by growing them into small, spherical replicas of tumors called organoids.

They are using these organoids to lay the scientific groundwork for a much-needed screening test for earlystage disease, and a method for determining the most effective treatment for a particular patient. Samples from South Florida will diversify the collection.

There’s still much to be done in establishing the collection, but Fields said he is optimistic about what patient contributions today could mean for the future. “What we’ve learned is that using samples from patients gives us much more accurate information, especially when it comes to treatment strategies,” he said. “This could lead to breakthrough discoveries in treatments and technologies that will benefit this region’s diverse patient population.”

If you would like more information, please contact us at

For many years, we assumed ‘If a treatment works for whites, it works for everybody.’ We were wrong.”

— Luis Raez, M .D.