The University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s annual scientific retreat drew more than 230 staff and researchers to address a key initiative that seeks to engage the community in the center’s research, care and policy work to best meet the needs of cancer patients in North Carolina and beyond.
This year’s meeting focused on community outreach and engagement. The keynote speaker was UNC Lineberger’s Stephanie Wheeler, PhD, MPH, director of the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement. UNC Lineberger created the office to monitor the cancer burden and identify disparities in North Carolina; engage diverse stakeholders to address the cancer burden and reduce disparities; amplify cancer outreach and supportive care; and facilitate impactful and equity-focused cancer research in the state and beyond.
“What are the leading causes of cancer death in our state? Are there any that vary significantly from what you see in the nation? If that’s true, then those statistics should be informing what we do to help North Carolina,” said UNC Lineberger Director H. Shelton Earp, MD, Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research.
In his opening remarks, Earp said the cancer center’s job is reduce the cancer burden in North Carolina by detecting it early, treating it well and helping survivors. In addition, he said the center wants a “bidirectional conversation” across the state about what the cancer center can do. He urged researchers to address racial and geographic disparities in outcomes and incidence.
“Our objective is to … ask you to tell us what you can do to help with these disparities. What we’re talking about today is what we can do about moving the needle,” said Earp, who also presented his annual “State of the Cancer Center” talk during the retreat.
Wheeler outlines vision for community outreach and engagement
Wheeler, a UNC Lineberger member and professor of health policy and management in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, described a vision for the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement to develop and sustain a community that partners with UNC Lineberger to reduce the cancer burden and address disparities across the state.
She challenged researchers to involve patients in research, to share their research results and to build relationships to “offer new perspectives and bring new energy.”
For researchers in basic science, she encouraged them to think about how basic science intersects with cancers that have a high burden in communities in North Carolina.
Wheeler said the office plans to support research, clinical care and programmatic and policy efforts that seek to better understand and serve the needs of all North Carolinians. She emphasized partnerships as key to facilitating and enabling research throughout the state, especially in areas of need.
“Our clinical care footprint reaches cancer patients in all 100 counties,” Wheeler said. “ We are in a unique position to serve, and have decades-long experience in serving, the entire state’s cancer-related needs.”
Researchers describe work to address cancer disparities
The retreat also featured five talks on research UNC Lineberger faculty are conducting to address cancer disparities:
Samuel Cykert, MD, professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Medicine, described a program called ACCURE that addressed disparities in treatment completion for blacks who have lung or breast cancer compared with white patients.
They used an electronic registry to uncover missed appointments or care milestones, and then connected patients with a navigator. This outreach improved treatment completion rates. “A 9 percent difference in treatment completion favoring white patients over black patients disappeared by the end of the study,” Cykert said.
Marjory Charlot, MD, MPH, MSc, UNC Lineberger’s associate director for community outreach and engagement for patient-centered research, reported on efforts to improve access to clinical trials for all patients, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities.
“We have a collective responsibility to our catchment area as the only public NCI-designated cancer center in North Carolina,” said Charlot, who is an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology. “The deeper reason behind this work is that of social justice. We have an ethical obligation that all patients have access to high quality cancer care.”
Efforts to increase participation for underrepresented patient populations include using patient navigation, strengthening partnerships with community oncologists, using technology to identify potentially eligible patients, and partnering to build a community portal to connect patients to research.
Victoria Bae-Jump, MD, PhD, professor of gynecologic oncology in the UNC School of Medicine, spoke about her work to better understand and treat endometrial cancer.
African-American women have a nearly two-fold increased risk of death from endometrial cancer compared to white women. There is a link between obesity and endometrial cancer, and that contributes to worse outcomes for African-American women alongside other factors.
Bae-Jump described her lab’s investigation into understanding how obesity is driving endometrial cancer at a molecular basis, with the goal that this insight could improve the understanding and treatment of the disease. She also spoke about launching the Carolina Endometrial Cancer Study, a large population-based study of endometrial cancer across North Carolina.
Chad Pecot, MD, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, presented new research into drivers of metastasis in lung squamous cell carcinoma, a type of lung cancer linked to smoking.
“I kept hearing this term ‘tobacco country,’ ” Pecot said, describing a need for his work in North Carolina specifically. Lung cancer is the major cause of cancer death in North Carolina, and globally.
His laboratory has created a model of squamous cell lung cancer, which has allowed them to study of how lung cancer spread and, subsequently, to discover molecular drivers of the cancer.
Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque, PhD, DDS, a professor of dental ecology at the UNC Adams School of Dentistry, said oral cancers are associated with tobacco and alcohol use, as well as viral infections. African American men have the poor oral cancer survival, she said, compared with whites, even after adjusting for other factors.
“These bad guy bacteria can promote the pathogenesis of these viruses and make … virus-caused cancers worse,” she said, presenting evidence to show that periodontal disease is linked to oropharyngeal cancer.
The retreat also included a “fireside chat” with UNC Lineberger leaders and a scientific poster competition for graduate students and postdoctoral trainees with cash prizes for the top-ranked posters.
Poster competition winners announced
The winners of the poster competition by category were:
- Brian Beaty, MD, PhD
- Emily Harrison, PhD
- Jiawei Zhou
- Sarah Paraghamian, MD
- Jennifer Klomp, PhD
- Christine Roden, PhD
- Jessica Islam, PhD
- Sara Rubio Correa
- Marjorie Margolis, PhD
- Markia Smith