Reaching Out to Minority Investigators at NCI
In 2000, Dr. Alexzander Asea was at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute when, with a colleague, he was the first to report that heat shock protein-70 (Hsp70), a well-known chaperone protein (a guardian of other proteins) could also act as a cytokine, helping trigger and orchestrate immune responses to, among other things, cancer cells. This and other heat shock proteins are now under intense investigation, including their potential as vehicles for delivering cancer vaccines. Dr. Asea, a native of Uganda, was able to make this discovery thanks in part to a grant he received from NCI's Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch (CMBB). The discovery, published in Nature Medicine, and subsequent publications enabled him to get his first NCI R01 grant, establishing him as an independently funded investigator and helping obtain a position as an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
Dr. Asea's ascension through the research ranks since he first began as a postdoctoral research fellow 10 years ago is exactly the kind of result envisioned by NCI leaders who established CMBB 30 years ago. Although its name has changed slightly, CMBB's mission has not: cultivating culturally sensitive, well-trained, competitive minority researchers.
CMBB is unique because of its holistic approach. Efforts to recruit promising minority researchers begin in high school and continue through to the grantees' first academic appointments. As part of CMBB's innovative Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program, for example, NCI-designated cancer centers can fund placement of promising minority high school and undergraduate students in their research programs. The opportunity for these students to experience firsthand the excitement of basic, clinical, and population-based cancer research can make an indelible impression and set their future career course.
Through CURE, CMBB also offers other opportunities to researchers further along in their careers. Qualified minority researchers, for instance, can receive career development awards that provide protected time to develop and receive support for their initial independent cancer research work. The award helps smooth out what can be a difficult transition for postdoctoral research scientists leaving the confines of their mentored work to become full-fledged independent researchers.
CMBB also supports efforts to develop minority researchers on a broader scale, including the Comprehensive Minority Institution/Cancer Center Partnership program to develop and fund partnerships between NCI-designated cancer centers and institutions that serve a large minority population. These partnerships - 54 awards have been funded since this program began 5 years ago - are increasing the minority-serving institutions' cancer research capabilities as well as improving the cancer centers' effectiveness in developing and sustaining activities that address the well-documented disparities in cancer care.
In the spring, Dr. Asea will leave Boston to become the holder of the Cain Centennial Chair in Clinical Pathology and chief of the Division of Investigative Pathology at the Scott & White Clinic and Texas A&M University College of Medicine. There, he will continue his research as well as another of his pursuits: mentoring young minority researchers. "Many minority researchers lack the established network and role models that other younger researchers take for granted," he says. With the right assistance, these researchers can "bring unique cultural perspectives to the research environment and enrich and reshape the future of scientific research."
CMBB grantees are bringing the Branch's work full circle. It's that self-sustaining desire that will continue to make this program a success. More information is available at http://minorityopportunities.nci.nih.gov.
Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach