By Anh Nyugen
Rohit Iyer will return for his third year of medical school at the University of South Florida (USF) Morsani College of Medicine this fall with a new understanding for one of his passions – research into cancer health disparities. He’s one of four USF students in the inaugural class of a unique internship program created through a partnership between Moffitt Cancer Center and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) called the Southeast Partnership for Improving Research & Training in Cancer Health Disparities (SPIRIT-CHD).
SPIRIT-CHD has two goals – advance biospecimen-centered cancer health disparities research and, and train underrepresented undergraduate and medical students in topics related to biobanking, precision medicine and cancer health disparities. A $1.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute will fund the initiative for the next four years.
“Precision medicine is the future of cancer care. Being able to tailor a patient’s treatment to his or her genetic mutation or specific health needs can improve outcomes,” said Dr. Clement K. Gwede, lead investigator the Cancer Research Education Program within the SPIRIT-CHD and senior member of Moffitt’s Health Outcomes & Behavior Program.
SPIRIT-CHD will oversee two collaborative research projects. The first project is in progress and focuses on breast cancer, specifically among Latina women who are more prone to the aggressive Luminal B molecular sub-type than non-Hispanic white women. Drs. Doug Cress, M. Catherine Lee, and Jamie Teer, along with collaborators at LSUHSC, are creating a biobank of molecular and genetic data from breast cancer patients to study how ancestry plays a role in molecular sub-type. The second project will be determined competitively following completion of the first.
“Another important facet of the SPIRIT-CHD project is education. There is a need to train the next generation of health disparities researchers,” said Dr. Cathy Meade, co-principal investigator of SPIRIT-CHD and senior member of Moffitt’s Health Outcomes & Behavior Program. “We are teaching students how to properly conduct research and also communicate their studies and findings to the community in terms that are clear and understandable.”
The SPIRIT-CHD Summer Internship Program launched in June at both Moffitt and LSUHSC. Moffitt’s inaugural class included Iyer and three other USF undergraduate and medical students. They were paired with a faculty mentor and participated in a web-based curriculum along with LSUHSC interns that focused on biobanking, precision medicine and cancer health disparities.
Iyer, who plans a future as a physician scientist, said the skills he learned this summer will be invaluable. “Understanding what causes certain types of health disparities and what types of multi-level interventions can be implemented to reduce them will help me both as a physician when speaking with my patients and as an advocate for system-wide reforms.”
“Once I discovered this program at Moffitt, I knew that I wanted to spend a summer immersing myself in all that it had to offer,” said Christa Nairn, another USF medical school student interning with the SPIRIT-CHD Program. “I wanted to gain a better understanding of how social determinants of health affect Tampa Bay communities as it pertains to cancer prevention and screening. This internship has given me an inside look at how information is best transferred from health care professionals to the community, and as a physician, this will be invaluable to me.”
“Working as a research intern at Moffitt has allowed me to use my heritage to connect with people in the Latino community to stop smoking and improve their health outcomes,” said Vanesa Carreno, a USF senior majoring in biomedical sciences who aspires to become an oncologist. “As a physician, I want to care for underserved populations. This experience has shown me that, without research, there would not be progress in treatments, technology or information. It is always important to be involved and aware.”
“This experience has made such an impact on me professionally. I had already planned to apply to medical school. My time at Moffitt solidified that I have made the right decision,” said Rickey Murray a USF junior majoring in Chemistry.
For more information on the SPIRIT-CHD program, please visit www.spiritchd.com.