It’s lofty to imagine a world without cancer. The prevalent disease continues to be the second most common cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease. In 2022 alone the American Cancer Society estimated that 1.9 million new cancer cases would be diagnosed and 609,360 would die from the illness. Black people are expected to account for 224,080 of those new cases and 73,680 of those cancer deaths.

Despite years of intense medical research, a cure for this often debilitating disease has yet to be delivered. It's why scientists continue to look deeper into the causes and the racial disparities that exacerbate cancer mortality rates among Black people. Last week Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Pfizer’s Institute of Translational Equitable Medicine (ITEM) announced the launch of a comprehensive cancer genomics study to determine disparity drivers of breast and prostate cancer in African, African Caribbean, and African American men and women.

“People of African ancestry disproportionately develop aggressive, high-grade cancers, particularly in breast and prostate tissues, and the underlying driving factors are not well understood,” explains Sophia HL George, PhD, associate director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. The propensity to develop these cancers contributes to Blacks having the highest death and shortest survival rate of any racial/ethnic group for most cancers, particularly the types George mentions. Though there is a significant need to explore the causes, few research studies exist to investigate cancer risk and outcomes in people of African ancestry.

To address what the collaboration calls “knowledge gaps” it will build a clinical genomics registry of biological specimens accompanied by epidemiological, behavioral, and clinical data from African ancestry patients diagnosed with breast and prostate cancer. Patients recruited for the study will come from diverse populations across the diaspora. That includes U.S.-born and immigrant Black patients residing in the United States, patients from moderate and low-income countries in the Caribbean islands, and patients from Western, Eastern and Southern countries in the African subcontinent.

The study has several goals in mind, including identifying rare genetic drivers that may contribute to the formation of these cancers, determining inherited cancer risks and distinguishing any socioeconomic and lifestyle factors that may influence cancer outcomes in patients of African ancestry.

“We established the Institute of Translational Equitable Medicine to achieve health equity by preventing, treating, and identifying disease drivers that disproportionately impact underserved and minority populations nationally and globally,” says Aida Habtezion, MD, MSc, FRCPC, AGAF, Chief Medical Officer and Head of Worldwide Medical & Safety at Pfizer. “Our goal is to use data to help better understand the drivers of health inequities.” Habtezion expresses excitement over potentially being able to close gaps in applying scientific knowledge to the disparities that currently exist for African ancestry cancer patients. 

The study will include cancer patients from partner cancer centers, the University of Alabama, and Augusta University in collaboration with HBCU Morgan State University. Research sites throughout Africa and the Caribbean will also play a major role.

“We want to enable African and Caribbean researchers to ask questions collaboratively across the U.S, Africa and the Caribbean so that we can lead projects that affect our populations,” says George, “This is exciting because the way the collaboration has been designed, there is equity in who is participating, who is leading, and who is at the center of the project.”