First lady Jill Biden, Ed.D.
First lady Jill Biden, Ed.D., visited the VCU Massey Cancer Center on Wednesday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Meet the researchers who met with first lady Jill Biden

VCU Massey Cancer Center scientists shared their advances in the fight against cancer and their knowledge about how health disparities intersect with pancreatic, cervical and other cancers.

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When first lady of the United States Jill Biden, Ed.D., visited Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center on Wednesday, she met with several scientists about advancements in preventing, detecting and treating cancer and the importance of addressing cancer disparities.

Cancer disparities — differences between certain groups in the rates of new cases and deaths, prevalence, survival, quality of life after treatment and other outcomes related to cancer — have long left some populations bearing a greater burden from cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

Black Americans, for example, have higher death rates than all other racial or ethnic groups for most cancers. Black women are more likely than white women to die of breast cancer, despite having similar rates of occurrence. And Black men are twice as likely as white men to die of prostate cancer and continue to have the highest prostate cancer mortality among all U.S. population groups, according to the NCI.

Goodwin Research Laboratory at VCU Massey Cancer Center.
Dr. Jill Biden toured several scientists' labs on Feb. 24 at VCU Massey Cancer Center's 80,000-square-foot research wing, Goodwin Research Laboratory, where she discussed these researchers' advancements in preventing, detecting and treating cancer and the importance of addressing cancer disparities. (University Marketing)

VCU Massey Cancer Center is one of two NCI-designated cancer centers in Virginia and one of 71 nationwide, placing it among the top 5% in the nation. Massey is home to hundreds of scientists, doctors, outreach staff and others all dedicated to discovering, developing, delivering and teaching effective means to prevent, detect, treat and cure cancer through innovative research, patient care and education.

Here is a look behind the scenes at the work of the scientists Biden met with at Goodwin Research Laboratory, Massey’s 80,000-square-foot cancer research wing, who are helping to address these cancer disparities head-on through community-engaged and advanced research.

Making innovative research available to patients

Saïd Sebti, Ph.D., associate director for basic research at Massey Cancer Center and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at VCU School of Medicine, leads a team of scientists who translate research into new treatments for cancer patients.

Taking solutions from the research bench to the patient’s bedside has been part of Sebti’s work for decades. A fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, Sebti has spearheaded scientific discoveries that have led to more than 80 patents and several technology licenses.

Saïd Sebti, Ph.D.
Saïd Sebti, Ph.D.

These innovations include a drug called FGTI-2734 that he and his team at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center discovered before Sebti arrived at VCU in 2019. The drug targets the growth of malignant tumors driven by the cancer-causing KRAS protein, including in pancreatic cancer.

Working with Massey researchers and the Medicines for All Institute at VCU, Sebti is developing FGTI-2734 further in an effort to gain Food and Drug Administration approval for clinical trials.

“At present, there are no FDA-approved drugs to directly target mutant KRAS-driven human cancers, and novel drugs are urgently needed for the large number of afflicted patients,” said Sebti, the Lacy Family Chair in Cancer Research and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey, in a September 2020 interview.

Pancreatic cancers are the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, and KRAS is mutated in 90% of pancreatic cancers. Cancer patients with KRAS mutations have more aggressive tumors, respond poorly to chemotherapy and targeted therapies and tend to have a worse prognosis. Targeting KRAS and developing KRAS-specific therapies is a high priority for the NCI.

Examining pancreatic cancer connections

Black Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than Americans of any other race or ethnicity, according to NCI data from the SEER Cancer Statistics Review 1975-2017 — making the efforts of Sebti and colleagues, such as Massey’s surgeon in chief Jose Trevino, M.D., critical to reducing the disease’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans.

As researchers offered Biden the opportunity to view 2D and 3D pancreatic cancer cells under a microscope, Trevino spoke about what research tells us about pancreatic cancer disparities. As a physician-scientist, Trevino has studied tumors and cancer biology, new treatments and health equity related to pancreatic cancer.

Jose Trevino, M.D.
Jose Trevino, M.D.

Before joining VCU in November as chair of the Division of Surgical Oncology at the School of Medicine, Trevino authored a study, published in April in the journal Cancer Medicine, on ethnic subgroups and pancreatic cancer outcomes. The study was one of the first to examine the connection between the disease and ancestral racial diversity among Black and Latino populations.

Trevino, who is VCU’s Walter Lawrence Jr. Distinguished Professor of Oncology, has previously said that recognizing the differences in cancer biology across race, location and ethnic background, and personalizing treatments to fit the individual, might allow health care providers to identify better strategies and treatment options for better outcomes.

“The hope is that, in the future, we’re going to be able to take somebody’s tumor and be able to identify so many differences about it,” Trevino said in an August 2020 interview. “[We’ll] be able to say, ‘This person has these differences, and therefore, they should be treated with this particular therapy,’ and then they’ll get to live longer and live healthier lives.”

Bending the arc toward health equity in cervical cancer

Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., director of catchment area data alignment in the Office of Health Equity and Disparities Research at VCU Massey Cancer Center, met with Biden to discuss disparities in cervical cancer and the microbiome. NCI data shows cervical cancer is more common among Latina and Black women than women of other racial and ethnic groups and is deadlier for Black women than any other group.

Tossas, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at VCU School of Medicine, is examining the role of the microbiome in influencing HPV in Latina and Black women, which is more robust in these populations and may contribute to an increase in cervical cancer. Changes to the microbiome, made up of a collection of microbial communities that live in and on the human body, can have an impact on many factors of a person’s health, including whether they are more likely to experience preterm labor, for example.

Katherine Tossas, Ph.D.
Katherine Tossas, Ph.D.

Tossas leads a project called COALESCE, or Clinics & Communities Tackling Racial Disparities, Systemic in (Colon and Cervical) Cancer Screening. In January, Tossas received $400,000 in funding as part of the Addressing Racial Disparities in Cancer Care Competitive Grant Program to promote equity in factors that impact cancer outcomes for Black men and women.

The award will allow Tossas’ team to support a network of community partners to jointly identify and address systemic, race-related barriers to colon and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic follow-up care. The project aims to increase screenings, improve follow-up processes, increase provider and community cancer screening knowledge and build partnerships that support future cancer health equity initiatives.

“Together, Massey and our community partners will hold each other accountable, ensure the community’s intelligence is represented and break from the common consciousness that might have contributed to the problem of inequitable access to cancer care to co-create improved, sustainable solutions” said Tossas, VCU’s Harrison Endowed Scholar in Cancer Research and Cancer Prevention and Control, in a 2020 interview. “As the cancer center for Virginia, we are natural allies in the quest to halt cancer, speak truth to power and bend the arc towards cancer health equity.”

Improving quality of life for cancer survivors

Survivorship is the health and well-being of a person from the time of their cancer diagnosis until the end of their life. Developing interventions to improve the quality of life for Black cancer survivors during and after treatment is one of several research goals Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D., is pursuing at Massey. Sutton spoke with Biden about disparate survivorship of minorities with cancer, a topic she has researched widely at VCU. She is working on research to understand heart health issues in Black survivors of breast cancer.

Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D.
Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D.

Sutton, a three-time VCU graduate, serves as a postdoctoral fellow in the NCI-funded T32 Cancer Prevention and Control Research Training Program in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at Massey Cancer Center. She has worked on several research projects related to minority survivorship with Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., Massey’s associate director for community outreach, engagement and health disparities and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy.

Sutton’s research centers on the development, evaluation and dissemination of behavioral interventions for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer as well as exploring methods to increase African American representation in clinical trials and biospecimen samples for research.

Sutton has conducted research on topics ranging from engaging rural residents in research and education activities related to colorectal cancer to promoting physical activity and improving quality of life for Black breast cancer survivors undergoing adjuvant endocrine therapy, a kind of hormone therapy that can reduce the recurrence of breast cancer.