FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A Northern Arizona University and Arizona Cancer Center collaboration seeking solutions to cancer disparities among Native Americans is receiving a $15.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
The collaboration - the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention - is the only partnership being funded by NCI that takes aim at the burden cancer places on Native Americans.
"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," said Laura Huenneke, vice president for Research at Northern Arizona University and lead investigator for the NAU portion of the partnership.
NAU will receive $8.9 million and the Arizona Cancer Center at the University of Arizona will receive the remaining funds.
Projects through the institute build the skills and accomplishments of NAU researchers by providing them with collaborators and resources from the Cancer Center and contribute to scientific understanding of the causes and impacts of cancer in Arizona's tribal communities.
"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, principal investigator, NACP Training Program.
The partnership's premise is that a sustainable solution to cancer disparities among Native Americans must be rooted in the communities, Canfield explained.
Its efforts have resulted in 11 tribal-approved research projects on comprehensive breast and cervical cancer screening programs. The institute also helped initiate continuing education for community health care professionals and graduate and undergraduate curricula at both universities.
Huenneke said a portion of the funding goes toward working with tribal communities to understand their priorities with respect to cancer and to use that information to design useful research and translate the results into programs that have an impact in those communities.
"These research opportunities also recruit and train talented students, especially Native American students, into careers related to cancer research, prevention and treatment," she said.
NAU offers year-round support for research experiences for undergraduates in the cancer research laboratories.
Major NAU projects being funded at the beginning of this cycle include:
Jani Ingram, an associate professor in NAU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, along with Margaret Briehl, a research associate in the U of A Cancer Center division, are continuing research on how the environmental exposure of uranium on Navajo communities affects drinking water and dust 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 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."
Alison Adams, an NAU associate professor in biological sciences, along with research partner Ted Weinert, a U of A associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, are leading a project targeted toward understanding why cells become cancerous. They are looking at mechanisms that ordinarily stabilize or protect chromosomes from breakage and rearrangement, which can lead to cancer.
"In addition to increasing knowledge of mechanisms leading to cancer, this project provides an excellent educational and training vehicle for Native American and other students in cancer biology, and helps prepare them for careers in cancer research and related fields," Adams said.
Matt Gage, an NAU assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry, is working with William Montfort, a U of A professor of chemistry and biochemistry, to determine the potential connections of a common chemical signal in cells to cancer causation. They are leading a team investigating conformational changes in the receptor of nitric oxide, a signaling molecule clinked to cancer. "The collaboration with the University of Arizona provides me with access to equipment that is not available at NAU," Gage said. "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."