NAU-UA partnership earns $15.7 million grant to confront cancer disparities among Native Americans

October 15, 2009

By hammersmith

Ever so slowly, cancer mortality rates in the general U.S. population are declining. But not among Native Americans. For them, rates are rising.

In response, the National Cancer Institute has awarded a $15.7 million grant to the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP), a one-of-its kind collaboration between Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona, and members of the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo and Tohono O’odham nations.

“This is the only partnership funded by the National Cancer Institute aimed at the huge burden that cancer places on Native Americans,” said Laura Huenneke, vice president for research at NAU and lead investigator for the $8.9 million NAU portion of the grant.

“This funding will support projects that all relate to cancer in some way and that are carried out by teams of researchers and students from both universities,” she added.

The renewal of the NACP grant, first funded with a $7.5 million award in 2002, will allow researchers to further develop community-rooted investigations and cancer-prevention strategies that have begun to flourish over the past seven years. The NACP partnership employs a tripartite approach, with projects in training, outreach, and research.

“Since 2002, when the  first cycle of funding began, a strong community relationship was developed with the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo and Tohono O’odham nations; these relationships now position us to develop sustainable community-based programs aimed at reducing the cancer burden,” said Louise Canfield of UA’s Arizona Cancer Center, the principal investigator on the NACP Training Program.

One such project  is the Navajo Nation Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Program, based in Window Rock. NACP investigators have been able to both support the program in nearly a dozen implementations, and evaluate effectiveness in conjunction with local program staff.

“We have an agreement with [the partnership] that opens the door to a lot of collaboration that we’re doing with one another,” said Sally Ann Joe, director of the program, in the Tucson Weekly in 2007. “They have given us technical assistance, and summer interns to do studies. It’s very important for us.”

A project more typical of NCI-funded grants is a study led by Jani Ingram, an associate professor in NAU’s chemistry and biochemistry department, along with Margaret Briehl, an Arizona Cancer Center research associate. They are studying how the environmental presence of uranium in drinking water and dust in Navajo communities and how the uranium may work as a carcinogen.

“The long-term objective of the project is to explore the relationship between cancer disparities for the Navajo Nation and chronic exposure to environmental uranium,” said Dr. Ingram, who is Navajo. “The exposures of the Navajo people are unique because of mining activity and the lifestyle of the Navajo people. The work entails analyses of water and soil samples and investigations of cells and natural uranium interactions specific to the environment that exists in the southwestern region of the Navajo Nation.”

Another aspect of the partnership has been the development of graduate and undergraduate curricula and research projects at both UA and NAU that attract Native American students to careers in which they might begin to put a dent in the cancer rates within their own communities.

“These research opportunities recruit and train talented students, especially Native American students, into careers related to cancer research, prevention and treatment,” Dr. Huenneke said.

“Of the 153 students who have participated in NACP training and research programs, 106 are Native American,” Dr. Canfield reported. “Fifty-three of these participated actively in one of eight research programs; 13 are currently working in cancer research or health care; and 10 are pursing advanced degrees.”

For NAU and UA faculty, the partnership presents an opportunity for younger researchers to rub shoulders with scientists further advanced in their careers, and for investigators whose usual activities keep themon the university campus to work closely with public- and community-health practitioners, tribal leaders, and tribal members affected directly by cancer.

“The collaboration with UA provides me with access to equipment that is not available at NAU,” said Matt Gage, an NAU assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry. “It also allows me interactions with my collaborator, Bill Montfort, an experienced biophysicist who is an excellent mentor to me in this early stage of my career.”

For more information:

Cancer Center Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention Awarded $15.7M,” University of Arizona news release, 10/05/2009

Partnership for Native American cancer prevention awarded $15.7 million,” Northern Arizona University news release, 10/02/2009

Native Mystery: A unique partnership finds health answers on the reservation,” Tucson Weekly, 07/05/2007