UAMS Receives $18.9 Million to Address Cancer, Heart Disease Disparities

The funding will support the creation of a center for health and social justice.

UAMS researchers
Members of the research team include (back row, l-r) Keneshia Bryant-Moore, Pebbles Fagan, Carol Cornell, Linda Luster and Christina Hamilton; (front) Elizabeth Taylor, Theresa Prewitt and Tiffany Haynes. Pictured separately are (from top) Mark Williams, Chris Long and Mignonne Guy (Virginia Commonwealth University). Photo courtesy of UAMS.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has received $18.9 million from the National Institutes of Health to support new research and interventions that will focus on reducing cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities among people who live in rural areas and African American populations across Arkansas.

The five-year award from the NIH National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities will support the establishment of the Center for Research, Health and Social Justice — one of only 11 Multiple Chronic Disease Centers funded in the United States, according to a press release. Leading the grant are Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health faculty members Carol Cornell, a professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and director of the NIMHD-funded Arkansas Center for Health Disparities, and Pebbles Fagan, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco.

“This exciting new award ranks among our largest and will support a highly innovative social justice program to guide research, training and community engagement activities,” said Shuk-Mei Ho, UAMS vice chancellor for Research and Innovation. “The elimination of health disparities and promotion of health equity is a Healthy People goal for our nation and for Arkansas. According to the Advisory Committee for Healthy People 2020, health disparities are systemic and plausibly avoidable.”

The overall goals of the center are to:

  • Advance the science of chronic disease health disparities through multidisciplinary team science to improve cancer and cardiovascular outcomes.
  • Facilitate research and training opportunities to strengthen the capacity of researchers and community members to develop interventions that reduce cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities using social justice principles.
  • Support academic-community partnerships to address the root causes of chronic disease disparities among African Americans and in rural areas in the state.

The new funding is also critically important to the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, which is working to attain NIH National Cancer Institute Designation, said Michael Birrer, vice chancellor and director of the UAMS institute.

“This award expands on our statewide efforts to address three major risk factors for cancer — tobacco use, obesity/nutrition issues and alcohol use,” Birrer said. “Arkansas communities are hit disproportionately by cancer compared to other states and the nation. We now have an opportunity to address cancer risk and social determinants of cancer risk factors.”

The new center already has more than 50 community and organization partners and collaborators across Arkansas and at research institutions in other states. Partners include the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Department of Education, Coalition for a Tobacco Free Arkansas, the City of Little Rock, Pulaski County, school districts and universities in Arkansas and other community organizations. Many UAMS entities are involved, including the Division of Research and Innovation, Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. Other key partners are Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

“Race and place-based health disparities are long-standing, and the solutions require multilevel approaches that integrate solutions across disciplines, sectors and organizations,” Fagan said. “Our over 50 partnerships, including many partners in Pulaski County, provide the foundation for repositioning and resetting the dialogue, our approaches and our collective actions toward eliminating multiple chronic disease disparities in rural areas and among African American Arkansans.”

The center includes five major components:

  • Training to build the next generation of researchers and practitioners to address cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities across the state.
  • Community engagement to help communities become more socially just and in turn facilitate access and uptake of preventive health care related to cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • Research to reduce tobacco use among African Americans in Lee, Chicot, Phillips and Desha counties.
  • Research in barbershop settings in rural areas to reduce excessive alcohol use among African American males.
  • Research to examine the effectiveness of school nutrition policy on reducing obesity and providing good nutrition to children in low resource rural schools in Northwest Arkansas.

“We’ve been funding health disparities research through the Arkansas Center for Health Disparities since 2007, but this new award takes our efforts to an entirely different level,” Cornell said. “The new Center for Research, Health and Social Justice will greatly expand our partnerships in this work and increase opportunities for research, training and community engagement. Perhaps most importantly, the focus on social justice in every aspect of the new center and coordination with other centers across the country will accelerate progress toward our ultimate goal of eliminating health disparities.”