UF faculty strive to increase diversity in cancer clinical trials through national program

Three early-stage investigators at the UF Health Cancer Center have received the opportunity to participate in a national training and mentoring program that aims to increase the diversity of underrepresented patients enrolled in clinical trials.

Left to right: Jesus Fabregas, M.D., M.P.H., FACP, Oluwadamilola Oladeru, M.D., M.A., M.B.A., and Sherise Rogers, M.D., M.P.H.

Jesus Fabregas, M.D., M.P.H., FACP, assistant professor in the division of hematology and oncology in the UF College of Medicine, was among the 64 physicians selected this fall to receive the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Career Development Award. An independent national review committee selected this year’s cohort, and the scholars represent a wide range of races, ethnicities and perspectives.

Sherise Rogers, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the division of hematology and oncology and diversity, equity and inclusion officer for graduate medical education, and Oluwadamilola Oladeru, M.D., M.A., M.B.A., assistant professor in the department of radiation oncology, were selected for the first cohort of 52 scholars who entered the two-year program in November 2021.

“I am excited about the impact this award will have at a national level to increase the representation of underserved communities in oncologic clinical research,” Fabregas said.

The Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program, which also includes a second award program for underrepresented medical students, was created in 2020 with a $100 million pledge by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation. Virginia Commonwealth University serves as the program implementation partner. Gilead Sciences is a program supporter and the American Association for Cancer Research is a curriculum partner.

Participants in the Career Development Award program receive $120,000 per year in recognition of their outstanding professional achievements and promise as community-oriented clinical researchers. The program provides researchers with sponsorship, training, mentoring, resources and a network to support their development as clinical investigators advancing health equity through research and mentoring.

Researchers receive training in investigator-initiated and industry-sponsored clinical trials and in community outreach and engagement. The program ensures researchers have access to supportive mentors and also provides them with the opportunity to mentor the next generation of diverse clinical researchers through an immersion program for medical students.

“This award teaches its recipients how to design, implement and conduct community-led clinical trials,” Rogers said. “This is extremely important because of the high rates of cancer disparities in African Americans, Latinx and rural communities in Florida.”

Projects that target pancreatic, colon and breast cancer

A pancreatic cancer disparities and health equity scientist, Rogers is focusing on analyzing the stool microbiome in a diverse population. The goal of her project is to find unique microbiota signatures associated with chemotherapy response and toxicity. 

Pancreatic cancer has a poor prognosis and is expected to be the second leading cause of cancer-related death in 2030. It is also a disease that has a 50% to 90% increased incidence in African Americans. Furthermore, African Americans have significantly lower surgery rates and increased mortality from pancreatic cancer, Rogers said.

The traditional model of conducting research first and then asking the community to participate afterward can worsen trust, Rogers said.

“To achieve health equity, we must incorporate the community that is affected from the conception of an idea,” she said. “I am an enthusiastic Robert A. Winn scholar because I am learning how to perform meaningful research that incorporates the people who are affected by pancreatic cancer. This is one of many ways we as researchers can advocate and improve health equity.” 

“To achieve health equity, we must incorporate the community that is affected from the conception of an idea.”

Sherise Rogers, M.D., M.P.H.

In his project, Fabregas is researching whether the microbiome signature in patients with locoregional colon adenocarcinoma receiving adjuvant chemotherapy is associated with circulating tumor DNA levels.

“This award is important because it will accelerate the understanding of the microbiome role in patients with colon cancer,” he said.

In her project, Oladeru is preparing a study to submit for approval in which she will propose to study the difference in cancer outcomes between hypofractionated (3-week) proton therapy and standard fractionation (5-week) proton therapy for women with invasive breast cancer that requires regional nodal irradiation. She is collaborating with mentor Julie Bradley, M.D., associate professor in the department of radiation oncology, on the project.

Training a diverse workforce

The Winn Award Program program was originally launched as the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation Diversity in Clinical Trials Career Development Program. In April 2021, Gilead Sciences joined as a program supporter with a funding commitment of $14 million.

The program was renamed in honor of Robert A. Winn, M.D., director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and the Lipman Chair in Oncology, who is a leader in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the oncology workforce.

The initiative’s goal is to train, develop and mentor more than 290 diverse and community-oriented clinical trialists and 290 medical students by 2027.

Fabregas said he was excited by the opportunity to further his research through the program.

“The UF Health Cancer Center supports its early-stage investigators with resources that are hard to obtain elsewhere,” he said.

NCI Cancer Center badge