Press Release

Cancer Moonshot funds will help USC researchers reduce health disparities in cancer research

$18.5 million in funding from the Cancer Moonshot will help researchers at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center close the gap in our understanding of colorectal cancer in Hispanic patients

Sarah Nightingale January 26, 2022
Latino with Doctor

Medical trials lead to important innovations that save lives. But some racial and ethnic groups are woefully underrepresented in such research studies, leaving unanswered questions about how diseases and treatments affect these populations.

“A major reason for this is that we have not done enough to understand how to engage with patients and communities to reveal the barriers and concerns and to create approaches that are sensitive and culturally appropriate,” said John Carpten, PhD, professor and chair of translational genomics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, director of the Institute of Translational Genomics, associate director of basic sciences at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Royce and Mary Trotter Chair in Cancer Research.

With support from a five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), as part of the Cancer Moonshot, researchers at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center are working to address these gaps. Carpten and Heinz-Josef Lenz, MD, FACP, professor of medicine, associate director of clinical research at USC Norris cancer center and J. Terrence Lanni Chair in Gastrointestinal Cancer Research, will lead these efforts under a new center, the University of Southern California Center for Optimization of Participant Engagement for Cancer Characterization (USC COPECC).

“Each cancer patient is unique, but what we learn from one helps others,” said David Wesley Craig, PhD, professor of translational genomics and co-director of the Institute of Translational Genomics. “Studying diverse populations is the next opportunity to new therapies, new approaches, and better diagnostics across the board.”

Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016, authorizing $1.8 billion in funding for the Cancer Moonshot over 7 years. USC COPECC is among five Research Centers and a Coordinating Center within the Cancer Moonshot Participant Engagement and Cancer Genome Sequencing (PE-CGS) Network. The USC team will focus on improving our understanding of colorectal cancer in Hispanic patients by identifying new ways to engage patients in genomic research—the study of our genes and the role they play in diseases like cancer.

“There is a significant disparity in the knowledge that we have about the tumor landscape of colorectal cancer among Hispanics,” said Mariana Stern, PhD, professor of clinical population and public health sciences and urology, associate director of population science at USC Norris cancer center and the Ira Goodman Chair in Cancer Research. “This has implications for the development of new therapies that may specifically benefit Hispanic patients. Our study will help close this gap of knowledge in a significant way.”

Partnering with community-based health organizations, the researchers will develop and share culturally relevant educational materials that aim to empower patients and community members to make informed decisions about their health and become savvy consumers of the opportunities available to them.

Los Angeles, the source of most of the patients at USC Norris cancer center, has the largest Hispanic population of all U.S. cities. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is both the second most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in this population group. Lenz said the study will help the researchers understand why this population is particularly at-risk.

“Hispanics develop colon cancer early which we still don’t understand,” said Lenz, who is also co-director of the USC Norris Center for Cancer Drug Development. “With this grant we will be able to show for the first time comprehensive characterization of colon cancer in Hispanics and, based on this, not only understand early onset of colon cancer but also develop more effective therapeutic options for our Hispanic patients.”

“I’m thrilled to be part of the USC Norris Moonshot team,” said Caryn Lerman, PhD, director of the USC Norris cancer center, H. Leslie Hoffman and Elaine S. Hoffman Chair in Cancer Research and associate dean for cancer programs. “This research will have a transformative impact in our diverse catchment area and beyond.”

Additional members of the USC COPECC research team include Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, professor of population and public health sciences, associate dean for community initiatives and associate director for community outreach and engagement; Julie Culver, MS, instructor of clinical medicine and genetic counselor; Charite Ricker, MS, instructor of clinical medicine and genetic counselor; Bodour Salhia, PhD, associate professor of translational genomics and co-leader of the genomic and epigenomic program at USC Norris cancer center; Juan Pablo Lewinger, PhD. assistant professor of population and public health sciences; Jim Gauderman, PhD, professor of population and public health sciences and Chair of Biostatistics Division; Sue Ellen Martin, MD, associate professor of pathology, associate chief of anatomic pathology at Keck Medical Center of USC and USC Norris Cancer Center Hospital and associate director of AP quality and operations at LAC+USC Medical Center