Precision Oncology and the Science of Racial Disparities: Two Researchers Discuss the Importance of Identifying Differences

05/23/19

Dr. Windy Dean-Colomb, an MD Anderson-trained MD, PhD, and practicing medical oncologist, and Dr. Clayton Yates, a professor of biology at Tuskegee University and director of the university's Multidisciplinary Center for Biomedical Research, join us to discuss the importance of studying and addressing racial disparities in oncology.

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Racial Disparities in Precision Oncology - Dr. Windy Dean-Colomb, Dr. Clayton Yates
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Cancer is personal to both of our guests: Dr. Dean-Colomb because of her own brother’s death from colon cancer, as well as the high incidence of breast cancer among African-American women in her home state of Louisiana; and Dr. Yates because of his personal experience with his grandfather’s death from prostate cancer. The two doctors have co-written several articles, in conjunction with other researchers, about cancer findings in African-American populations.

 

Today, both doctors are dedicated to understanding how tumor markers and cancer treatments can vary for African-Americans and other minorities. For instance, Dean-Colomb notes that when she and other researchers were looking at a sample group that represented all patients with breast cancer, they found that AR expression is lower in those who are African-American, and that those with lower AR had consistently worse outcomes. And when they looked at the triple-negative breast cancer group specifically, they found in that 100% of African-American women in the group were AR negative, in essence making them quadruple-negative.

 

When she discussed the findings with Dr. Yates, they noted that AR-negative prostate cancer patients also have worse outcomes. This miraculous finding led the doctors to recommend AR as a unique biomarker from ER and PR and HER2, which opened the door for targeted therapies that are based on the biology of an AR-negative patient.

 

With funding through the NCI and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities, Dr. Yates and his team at Tuskegee University are also starting to unravel the molecular genetic and epigenetic drivers that are pervasive in aggressive tumors in African-Americans. Today, Tuskegee is one of only seven research centers at minority institutions that is funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

 

Both doctors acknowledge the difficulties they face enrolling African-American’s in clinical trials after such historical injustices as the Tuskegee experiment, in which African-American males were injected with syphilis and studied by the University. In fact, Dr. Yates points out that if you look at all the genome sequencing data that is available for African-Americans, it is only 1% of the information that is available for other races.

 

Environmental, socio-economic and psychological barriers to effective precision medicine treatment for minority populations are just part of this fascinating conversation with two of the most respected figures addressing disparities in precision oncology today. We hope you take the time to listen to the entire podcast.

 

Download the full transcript of the episode here (pdf).

 

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About Our Guests

Windy Dean-Colomb, MD, PhD

 

Dr. Dean-Colomb indicates she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a doctor. She often jokes that she thinks her parents brainwashed her at an early age.  Nevertheless, life experiences cemented her desire to become a physician and a cancer specialist. Right before she was supposed to start medical school, her 24-year-old brother was diagnosed with colon cancer, with the doctor telling him “not to start reading a long book.” He died eight months later, making it the event that caused Dr. D-Colomb to focus on becoming a physician-scientist in oncology.

 

She initially received her undergraduate training at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas where she graduated with honors. She then moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where she completed the rest of medical training including a combined MD/PhD degree through the University of Illinois’ Medical Scholars program. 

 

Following a short stent working with FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Dean-Colomb then moved on to Houston, Texas where she completed her medical oncology training at MD Anderson in 2007. There she distinguished herself as physician-scientist with a focus on the treatment of breast cancer, especially in minority women. She has published several articles in this area and has won numerous awards and grants for her work, including a 2009 American Society of Clinical Oncology Merit Award for her research. Today, her work focuses on cancer disparities and, in particular, triple-negative breast cancer and prostate cancer, both of which have demonstrated extraordinary differences in outcomes both here in the United States and abroad.

Dr. Dean-Colomb has proven a desire to provide compassion care to the underserved, both here and internationally, and has participated in numerous medical missions in many developing African and Caribbean countries. Her driving philosophy is that a doctor’s role is to provide quality care to every person, in an emphatic and compassionate manner. “A diagnosis of cancer is a devastating thing to happen to a person and one of the greatest treatments we can offer our patients is the knowledge that they don’t have to go through this alone,” she says. Dr. Dean-Colomb currently serves patients at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Clayton Yates, MD, PhD

Dr. Clayton Yates is an internationally recognized expert in prostate cancer health disparities research, cell biology, molecular biology, and molecular pathology. His specific research interest is in epigenetic alterations that contribute to aggressive cancers in African-American patients.

 

Dr. Yates currents holds appoints in the Center for Cancer Research, and a joint appointment Materials Science and Engineering at Tuskegee University. He is also Adjunct faculty at Clark Atlanta University Department of Biology and Department of Pathology at University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Research Director for the Transatlantic Prostate Cancer Consortium, which is focused on understanding the tumor biology in native African men in Nigeria and developing novel clinical interventions for this population. Additionally, Dr. Yates acts as the principle investigator (PI) of the Research Centers at Minority Institutions (RCMI), site PI of CTSA (jointly with UAB-hub institution), and co-PI of U54 Cancer Health Disparities with Morehouse School of Medicinal and University of Alabama at Birmingham.

 

Yates earned his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Department of Pathology in 2005 as well as certificate of training in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative medicine from the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine.  He then went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University School of Medicine Department of Urology. After completing his post-doctoral training in 2007, Dr. Yates accepted a tenure track Assistant Professor position at Tuskegee University in the Department of Biology and Center for Cancer Research.  Dr. Yates was promoted to Full Professor in 2014. 

 

Dr. Yates has established several cell-lines based models derived from African-American patients that are used by many labs today to study molecular events the lead prostate cancer development and metastasis.  Additionally, Dr. Yates has identified multiple biomarkers for the prediction of aggressive cancers in African-Americans with prostate or breast cancer, and this has led to the development of a novel therapeutics for African-American breast, prostate, and pancreatic patients. He has received numerous research honors and awards, authored over 65 peer-reviewed publications, participated in numerous Department of Defense and NIH study section panels, and received numerous DOD and R level NIH grants in prostate and breast cancer health disparities, totaling over 25 million dollars in extramural funding.  

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