Research and training partnership with New Mexico State University receives $5.5 million NIH renewal grant

Collaboration co-led by Beti Thompson benefits cancer research, education and training
Dr. Beti Thompson of Public Health Sciences Division
Dr. Beti Thompson of Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientist Dr. Beti Thompson of the Public Health Sciences Division has received more than $5.5 million from the National Cancer Institute to fund an ongoing partnership between New Mexico State University and Fred Hutch.

The grant funds several projects spanning from basic science to public health research, including pilot projects, full projects and core initiatives for training and outreach. The grant is the renewal of two five-year awards and will fund work through August 2018.

“It’s pretty incredible to get this renewal because it’s a highly competitive grant,” Thompson said.

Increasing capacity building and decreasing cancer-related health disparities

The overall goal of the collaboration between Fred Hutch and NMSU, based in Las Cruces, is to continue to build upon the increasing cancer-research capacity at NMSU and increase knowledge and attention to cancer-related health disparities research at the Hutch.

“It’s a great partnership for both sides,” Thompson said. “When we started working with NMSU, it had absolutely no cancer research going and together we have built a very strong infrastructure for cancer research there. Many individuals who’ve worked under this partnership have subsequently received awards from NIH and other institutions because of the work we’ve done together. In trade, working with NMSU gives us access to a huge, diverse population of primarily Hispanics and Native Americans in the area surrounding the college, which allows us to greatly expand our knowledge of dealing with disparate populations.”

All of the projects and cores function as a collaborative effort led by investigators at the Hutch and their faculty counterparts at NMSU. The projects are facilitated by Thompson and her co-principal investigator at NMSU, Dr. Mary O’Connell, who help match researchers from each side of the partnership with others whose research interests intersect.

Fostering long-standing collaborative relationships

“This institutional partnership fosters collaborative relationships that typically prove long-standing,” Thompson said. For the current five-year grant, participating Fred Hutch scientists include Drs. Shirley Beresford, Christopher Li, Steve Schwartz and India Ornelas of the Public Health Sciences Division; Drs. Chris Kemp, Peggy Porter and Karen Peterson of the Human Biology Division; Drs. Roger Brent and Maxine Linial of the Basic Sciences Division; and Dr. Julian Simon of the Clinical Research Division.

The research performed through this institutional partnership endeavors to:

  • reduce obesity, and increase vegetable and fruit consumption and general health among people of the Navajo Nation through the development of community gardens and culturally appropriate behavioral change;
  • identify mechanisms leading to independent cancer cell death and validate novel drug targets to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer;
  • advance understanding of how certain steroid receptors contribute to breast cancer and promote future studies of the disease in U.S. Hispanic women, for whom it is the most fatal cancer; and
  • develop an imaging system to answer questions about the causes and consequences of signaling and response dysfunctions between cells, results of which can be immediately applied to research questions comparing cancer biology differences among individuals in different populations.

Additionally, the partnership focuses on student training at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels to improve education, training and professional development. As part of an integrated training and evaluation core, Fred Hutch postdoctoral candidates can apply for an opportunity to spend two- to four-week- terms undergoing intense education training at NMSU, where the postdoc learns to develop lesson plans and syllabi, and teach in some NMSU courses. In turn, approximately six undergraduate students from NMSU participate in a nine-week summer undergraduate research program at the Hutch, where students complete an independent research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor, attend weekly research seminars, participate in professional-development workshops designed to help facilitate the graduate/medical school application process, and present their findings at a competitive poster session. Additionally, approximately three NMSU graduate students are selected annually to participate in a nine-week summer internship involving diverse aspects of cancer research in human populations.

Working with the community rather than on the community

A second core funded by the grant is an outreach program, the goal of which is to foster research with underrepresented populations and provide capacity building for conducting such research on an ongoing basis. “We send the Hutch and UW faculty to work with medical residents from Memorial Hospital in Las Cruces as well as members of community groups to teach them to be more culturally competent, that is, to be aware of and pay attention to the cultural norms and values of the people they are working with,” Thompson said. “It teaches people to work with the community rather than on the community.”

The award is funded by the NCI’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, which is a program dedicated to addressing disparities in cancer incidence and mortality in underserved ethnic minorities. The philosophy of the NCI is that an ethnically diverse population of cancer researchers and health-care providers is best poised to meet the medical needs of traditionally underserved groups.

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