Edition 2015

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Changing the Face of Cancer Research

by Julie M. Hughes

NMSU Student

Minorities may have unusually high mortality rates for certain types of cancer, but few enter the field of cancer research. Mary O’Connell, a professor in NMSU’s Agronomy and Horticulture Department, is trying to change that.

O’Connell is working with about 15 NMSU faculty in partnership with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) of Seattle to expand cancer research at NMSU and increase the number of underrepresented minorities involved in cancer research.

“This really gives NMSU the chance to build a true partnership with an institution on the cutting edge of cancer research,” O’Connell says.

The partnership was initiated in 1999 by Leland H. Hartwell, the president and director of FHCRC and one of two Nobel Laureates working at the cancer research center.

 

NMSU Student

NMSU Student

“Dr. Hartwell looked to us because FHCRC wanted good, diverse scientists and because we are a minority-serving institution,” O’Connell says. “Collaborative science becomes very important for institutions because you build foundations for research. Scientists need to move across all disciplines to answer modern-day research questions.”

The partnership was funded in 2002 with a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the National Cancer Institute.

NMSU Student

NMSU Student

“We really hope this five-year planning grant will help improve the number of minority scientists in cancer-related research,” says Wendell Oderkirk, an NMSU nursing professor and co-principal investigator on one of four projects under way because of the partnership. “We want the programs that are planned with this grant to really address minority health disparity issues.”

Investigators are establishing a long-lasting infrastructure to conduct cancer research by developing a plan to recruit new and existing faculty into cancer research, developing an exchange program for faculty and students between the two institutions, and establishing a research curriculum at the university to increase knowledge of cancer disparities among minority populations and teach skills to address these disparities.

The grant also is allowing the insti-tutions to develop a structure to recruit, train and mentor undergraduate and graduate minority students for careers in cancer research.

O’Connell says more than 15 graduate and undergraduate students have been involved in research projects that have allowed them to travel to Seattle to work with scientists there. Many more students are working on projects in New Mexico. Nine nursing students are working with Oderkirk on his project to enhance screenings of minorities for colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer deaths.

NMSU Student

NMSU Student

In addition to the colorectal cancer screening project, pilot projects will look at the anticancer activity of native plants of the Southwest, metabolic responses to hypoxia (a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissues) and techniques to replace tissues and organs damaged by disease.

NMSU Student

NMSU Student

These projects partner NMSU professors from many different departments with researchers from FHCRC. Departments or programs participating include Agronomy and Horticulture, Family and Consumer Sciences, Biology, Molecular Biology, Sociology and Anthropology, and Nursing. Other projects will follow in the fourth and fifth years of the planning grant.

 

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