Program Spotlight: Arizona's Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention - Fostering the Next Generation of Native American Cancer Researchers

December 11, 2014, by CRCHD staff

Monica Yellowhair

Monica Yellowhair, a young Navajo cancer researcher living in Arizona, is just the kind of success story that the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP) loves to tell.

Growing up in Kayenta, Arizona on a Navajo reservation that spanned four states (Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico), Yellowhair discovered her passion that eventually led her to the biology lab. "I grew up in an area that exemplifies the essence of beauty, and because of this, I have been interested in science ever since I was just a little girl," she said. Yellowhair originally thought she might fulfill that passion through teaching, but during her sophomore year, she was offered a position in a research lab through Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) Minority Student Development Program. It turned out to be an opportunity that would change her life.

“Once I was in the lab, I realized I enjoyed it more than I did teaching,” she said. “It really was where I belonged,” she added. Yellowhair changed her major to microbiology and hasn't left the lab since. In fact, three science degrees later—a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, a master’s degree in chemistry (both from NAU), and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology with a minor in cancer biology (University of Arizona)—she is still pursuing the work she began at NAU, now as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC) lab. “I study how exposure to depleted uranium might cause the DNA damage that can increase vulnerability to cancer, and specifically, how exposure interferes with DNA repair,” she says.

Yellowhair has chosen this as her focus because of the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation during the mid- to late 20th century. The mines have been abandoned, but hundreds of them were left uncleaned and unsealed, meaning health risks remain. Prolonged exposure to uranium can result in cancers of the lungs, stomach, colon, pancreas, and prostate.

“I was fortunate to start my research involving the chemical genotoxicity of depleted uranium with NACP at NAU. This wonderful partnership gave me the privilege to collaborate with many people at UA and NAU,” she says. Yellowhair hopes to become a professor at a university close to the reservation so she can continue her research that examines the causes and prevention of cancer among the Navajo people. For this young Native American scientist, it’s all about doing something positive for her tribe.

Funded through a U54 Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity (PACHE) grant by NCI-CRCHD, NACP is a collaboration between NAU and UACC that was initiated in 2002. Its aim is to alleviate the unequal burden of cancer among Native Americans of the Southwest through research, training, and outreach (specifically in the Hopi, Tohono O'odham, and Navajo communities of Arizona).

The focus of the NACP Training Program is on recruitment, training, and retention of greater numbers of Native American students for careers in cancer-related research and health care. Programs to transition Native American students into the pipeline include introductory cancer-related exploration experiences for freshmen; summer cancer-related research experiences at NAU to transition tribal and community college students into universities; and programs to prepare undergraduates to enter biomedical graduate studies. Native American faculty and students serve as mentors and facilitators to help young Native Americans navigate their way into biomedical careers.

The NACP Research Program is focusing on building a team of investigators interested in cancer health disparities research and providing professional development programs for junior faculty to increase cancer-related research capacity at NAU. The program is also working to integrate cancer disparities research into existing and future UACC research programs.

The partnership’s Community Outreach Core uses the community-based participatory research approach to develop education programs, increase prevention and screening activities, and conduct prevention research in Native American communities.

NACP programs and research projects originate within the tribal communities to ensure relevance and support, and are developed and implemented in partnership with NACP students, faculty, and staff at NAU and UACC. The projects include laboratory, field-based, and community-based participatory research.

Laura Huenneke, Ph.D., Provost at NAU and an NACP principal investigator (PI) says, “This was the first partnership funded by NCI-CRCHD aimed at the huge burden that cancer places on Native Americans.” Margaret Briehl, Ph.D., Professor of Pathology at UA and a PI in the Training Program, says they have developed individual training programs to help the students get up to speed.

“Once the students get going, they seem to be interested in addressing American Indian health disparities,” Briehl said. “They feel a strong responsibility to their tribal connection and are committed to their community.”


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