Cancer research collaboration advances discoveries with a focus on gender and race health disparities 

December 14, 2022

Researchers from Henry Ford Health and Michigan State University (MSU) have joined forces to address health disparities in cancer medicine. 

“We are excited that so many of the grant proposals we received seek to address health disparities,” said Marita Gilbert, Ph.D., MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine associate dean of Diversity and Campus Inclusion and chair of the Henry Ford Health + MSU Health Sciences Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Committee. “Our goal is to develop a synergy of inclusive excellence and the highest level of clinical cancer research that honors the needs and experiences of the communities served by the organizations in this partnership.”


And thanks to a $1 million investment in cancer research this year from the Henry Ford Health + Michigan State University Health Sciences partnership, that spirit of collaboration and innovation is flourishing among researchers.

“These research grants, 40% of which directly address cancer disparities, are an important step forward in addressing some of the most challenging issues facing the cancer community today,” said Benjamin Movsas, M.D., chair of the Henry Ford Health + MSU Health Sciences Cancer Committee and medical director of Henry Ford Cancer. 

Understanding race and throat/tonsil cancer 

MSU’s Adam Alessio, Ph.D., and Henry Ford’s Indrin Chetty, Ph.D., have joined forces in a study of cancer health disparities in patients with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, commonly known as throat or tonsil cancer. 

With this grant, they hope to understand why African American patients have a 30% lower survival rate than white patients. Their research team is culling through reams of existing data from Henry Ford to find patterns in oral cancer patients — and learn from them. The research methods used in the study are the first of their kind, according to Chetty and Alessio. 

“By extracting information from CT images, we hope to identify features that explain outcomes among different racial groups,” said Alessio, whose research is focused on understanding cancer and heart disease through advanced imaging algorithms and integrated data analysis. “Then we can combine clinical factors with building artificial intelligence models to improve the treatment regimen to maximize the chance of a successful treatment.”

“The ability to develop explainable AI models which can incorporate clinical, socio-economic factors and imaging signatures and be trained on outcomes data from a diverse population of patients available at Henry Ford Cancer is indeed appealing,” said Chetty.

Unlike some other cancer centers, Henry Ford’s patient population includes a wide range of races and ethnicities, Alessio said. Historically in the American healthcare system, African Americans, Latinos, Indigenous people and Asian Americans have been underserved and underrepresented in healthcare delivery and research. 

Looking closer at gender differences in liver cancer

Another team of Henry Ford and MSU researchers is investigating why hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) development predominately affects males more than females, regardless of race. 

HCC is the most common type of primary liver cancer, and in 2020 was the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

“Its overall five-year survival rate is a meager 18%, partly due to a lack of effective targeted therapies,” said Qing-Sheng Mi, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Immunology Research Program at Henry Ford Cancer. The incidence of HCC is two to four times higher in men but has been rising faster in women in recent years. 

“Unfortunately, there are essential gaps in our current understanding of gender differences in the mechanisms governing pro- and anti-tumor activities of immune cells,” said MSU’s Hua Xiao, M.D., Ph.D., whose research at MSU focuses on the molecular mechanisms of liver and breast cancer. “That’s why there is an urgent need to identify the genetic differences between men and women who contract HCC and then develop targeted treatment options.” 

“Partnerships like Henry Ford and MSU, are critical to pushing health and science research forward,” said Norm Hubbard, MSU Office of Health Sciences senior associate vice president and Henry Ford Health + MSU Health Sciences board member and cancer committee member. “We are embarking on a new collaboration of research that will continue to address and fight these health disparities not only locally but also nationally.”

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