In the South, the fight against cancer is a fight against health disparities. African-Americans face higher cancer rates than Caucasians, and they’re more likely to die from the disease. A host of factors contribute to the stark divide—culture, environment, access to health care resources, socioeconomics, and genetic differences among them.
Narrowing the gap will take a team effort—including more minority cancer researchers who can extend the benefits of their discoveries to underserved communities. Here, three UAB alumnae, a diverse group of trailblazers in cancer research, education, and outreach, offer advice to a younger generation ready to follow in their footsteps:
For Hadiyah-Nicole Green, Ph.D. (pictured above), her aunt Ora Lee Smith’s decision to forgo cancer treatment was a shock—but not unusual. “Many people don’t want to face the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation,” she says. “And for some cancers, treatments don’t extend survival by many months.” So Green, a St. Louis native, made it her goal to develop a better way to beat cancer.
She may have discovered it in a groundbreaking procedure shown to trigger complete tumor regression in animal models. The technique combines lasers and nontoxic gold nanoparticles “a million times smaller than Abraham Lincoln’s eyelash on the penny,” Green says. She gained expertise with both as an undergraduate at Alabama A&M University, and then at UAB, where she earned a 2009 master’s and 2012 Ph.D. in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Physics. Green is the second African American woman and the fourth African American overall to receive a UAB physics Ph.D.
Green improved upon earlier attempts to insert nanoparticles into tumors. Now, they can be injected directly into the tumor, or be paired with special antibodies and delivered as a drug. The antibodies, which Green engineered to glow fluorescent in scans, serve as a kind of GPS leading nanoparticles to the tumor, she says. The external laser then heats the targeted nanoparticles within the tumor, destroying cancer cells while sparing nearby healthy cells.
Green joined Morehouse School of Medicine as an assistant professor in 2016, following a faculty appointment at Tuskegee University. Human clinical trials are on the horizon, pending donations through the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation she started and named in honor of her late aunt. Green’s innovation combining immunotherapy with laser-activated nanotechnology also earned her a $1.1-million Department of Veterans Affairs grant. She plans to target cancers that current drugs can’t really treat. “We want to save people who have been sent home to die,” she says.
Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., received part of her education at UAB, but her passion for serving the underserved came from her mother. When Scarinci, a native of Brazil, was stricken with polio at eight months of age, her mother joined the country’s immunization program, determined that no other family should share their experience. She took young Isabel and the vaccines door to door. “We got 100 percent vaccinations,” even in the favelas, or slum areas, Scarinci recalls. “No other people could achieve that.”
Trained as a psychologist, Scarinci came to UAB in 1989 to study chronic pain. But the field of public health, where her work could impact entire communities, was too appealing. She earned a master’s degree from the School of Public Health in 1993, along with a unique perspective: “At that time, when we talked about practicing public health in low-resource settings, we meant low- and middle-income countries, like Brazil,” Scarinci says. “But I compared statistics from here and my home state in Brazil, and Alabama often came out poorer. We have a lot of work to do in our own backyard.”
Scarinci joined UAB’s faculty in 2002. Today she is a professor in the School of Medicine’s Division of Preventive Medicine and associate director for globalization and cancer in the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her research has created community-based, culturally relevant programs to prevent and control cancer, such as initiatives to promote breast and cervical cancer screening among Latina immigrants in Alabama and reduce tobacco use among women in Brazil. She also serves as Brazil’s honorary consul for Alabama.
As a graduate student in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences Department of Biology, Sabita Saldanha, Ph.D., received her own piece of valuable advice. “Always try to see how you can fix a situation,” said her mentor, biology professor Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D.
Today, Saldanha is figuring out how to encourage minority students to consider cancer research careers. Her solution? Excite them early. As an assistant professor of biology and a scientist specializing in epigenetics at Alabama State University (ASU), she initiated a cancer biology course and research opportunities for undergraduates. A similar summer program welcomes high-school students. “We train them on basic lab techniques, and they read protocols and conduct experiments,” Saldanha says. “We teach them to write a paper for peer review.” The students respond enthusiastically to the experience, a “stepping stone” for future studies or work, she adds. Already, some trainees have found success: One earned admission to pharmacy school and scored an internship with the pharmaceutical company Novartis. Others have won academic prizes, are interning at universities, and are applying for spots at Ivy League schools.
A native of India, Saldanha earned a biotechnology master’s degree before relocating to Alabama. At UAB, she focused on cancer epigenetics in Tollefsbol’s lab, receiving master’s and Ph.D. degrees in biology in 2002 and 2014, respectively. Between degrees, she worked in Atlanta as a research specialist in bone regeneration, and then moved to Montgomery, where she joined ASU.
Header photo courtesy Hadiyah-Nicole Green
Scarinci, Saldanha, and Green are part of two National Cancer Institute-funded networks spanning the South to target cancer disparities in the lab, the clinic, the classroom, and the community. Through the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center-Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM)-Tuskegee University (TU) Partnership and the UAB Cancer Center-Alabama State University (ASU) Partnership, each institution shares its strengths: UAB’s high-tech research infrastructure, MSM’s clinical expertise, TU’s bioethics center, and ASU’s growing educational pipeline. “They also build bridges to diverse communities,” Scarinci says.
The partnerships already have helped hundreds of people receive cancer screenings and participate in therapeutic clinical trials—and trained hundreds of potential researchers. Earlier this year, the National Cancer Institute awarded the UAB-MSM-TU partnership a five-year, $16.6 million renewal grant.
Scarinci serves as a co-principal investigator for both partnerships. (Pathology professor Upender Manne, Ph.D., is UAB’s lead principal investigator for both.) She also co-leads training efforts for junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and students. Saldanha works with the ASU-UAB partnership to expand educational opportunities while conducting colon cancer research and community outreach about prevention and early diagnosis. Green calls herself a partnership “protégé” who benefited from training and mentorship. “There’s a lot of love and support,” she says.