In November, many men (and women) join the “Movember” movement, in an effort to stop prostate cancer, the second most common cancer among American men, and the second most deadly, behind lung cancer.
Prostate cancer is particularly deadly for African American men, who are 40 percent more likely to develop the illness and twice as likely to die from it.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. E. Shyam P. Reddy, much of the research has been geared to a different population. “Even the algorithm for diagnosis showed a bias toward whites,” said the Morehouse School of Medicine professor, who is the director of the Georgia Cancer Coalition and a star in the new critical science of cancer genomics.
Reddy and his colleagues at the school of medicine are in the midst of a campaign to improve outcomes for African Americans, which will, in turn, improve treatment for all prostate patients.
In 1987, conducting research at the National Cancer Institute, Reddy isolated the ERG cancer gene associated with 50% to 70% of prostate cancers. More recently, since he arrived at Morehouse, he’s been looking at “junk” DNA, the genes that don’t code for cell growth. What he discovered is that they do, in fact, code for some very short proteins, some of which can be useful in slowing or regulating cancer cell growth.
While Reddy works at the micro-level, Morehouse School of Medicine colleague Brian Rivers starts on the other side of the continuum, deputizing barbershop owners in the Atlanta area to help spread the word about the importance of early detection.
Rivers said that while men typically spend only a few minutes with their health providers, they spend much more time with their barbers and that, for many, the barbershop feels like a “safe” place to discuss the sensitive issue of prostate detection.
Rivers is the director of Morehouse school’s Cancer Health Equity Institute, and health equity begins, he said, when medical research takes into account minority populations.
Toward that end, Rivers is part of the “2020 by 2020” program coordinated by the American Association of Cancer Research. Black people are 32 percent of Atlanta’s population but represent only 3 percent of the database of cancer genomics. The Morehouse School of Medicine plans to change that, collecting genomic information from 2,020 consenting African American cancer patients by the end of 2020. (Information from 400 patients is already in hand.)
“We’re right on track,” said James Lillard, Morehouse School of Medicine associate dean for research affairs, and a bio-informaticist who will analyze the numbers gathered from the patients. Lillard said the information will help create the kind of targeted gene therapy that is the future of cancer treatment.
The Morehouse School of Medicine is a good fit for the job of creating health equity. As an HBCU, it graduates black doctors and trains those doctors at Grady Hospital where a majority of patients are African American.
Sporting a dark suit and a beard that would make LeBron James proud, Rivers paused one morning last week in the café at the school of medicine, on the ground floor of the school’s glass-fronted main building, where Reddy was collecting a cup of coffee and some lunch to go.
Reddy, in a seersucker jacket and colorful shirt, was clean-shaven, except for a neatly-trimmed mustache of the Duke Ellington variety. Upstairs in the building, outside his office, Reddy encountered his colleague Dr. Veena Rao, co-director of the school’s cancer biology program.
Rao and Reddy, husband and wife, are the power couple of microbiology. The two drive together to Atlanta University campus from their Alpharetta home each morning — he drives, she reads — and spend their days decoding the genes that control cancer cells.
Not all Morehouse scientists have mustaches (a trademark of the Movember movement), but these four are dedicated to the same goal of eradicating disease and saving lives.
Below is more about prostate cancer from Dr. Justin Watson, a urologist at WellStar Health System.
Q: At what age do you recommend men begin to get tested regularly?
A: Current guidelines recommend men consider screening for prostate cancer at the age of 45. However, for African American men, who are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and at a younger age, guidelines recommend beginning screenings at age 40.
Q: What percentage of men in that age range are likely to be tested this year?
A: Unfortunately, studies show that just under 40 percent of men have recently been screened for prostate cancer. That number is even lower – less than 35 percent – for African American men.
Q: Why is the prostate cancer mortality higher for African American men?
A: Prostate cancer mortality rates seem to be higher in African American men due to a more aggressive tumor biology. The higher mortality rates have also been attributed to a lower rate of screenings. Unfortunately, this can lead to a delay in detection until the cancer has already reached a later stage.
Q: Are you growing a mustache this month?
A: Yes, I’m absolutely growing a mustache this month. I have each year since 2012.
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