close-up photos of Black and Brown men

Closing the gap in prostate and colorectal cancer disparities: a community conversation

Terrance Afer-Anderson wants to create an army of ambassadors.

The Norfolk native and prostate cancer survivor wrote, produced and directed a movie, “The Black Walnut,” to bring attention to inequities in screening and mortality rates for prostate cancer in the Black community.

“I tell men scared of the invasiveness of a prostate cancer screening, ‘You have to toughen up,’” Afer-Anderson said on Feb. 9 at a virtual community event on the topic. “And I want African-American men – and women – to help spread the word about the disparity, to get tested early.”

Research, strategies and collaboration were the topics of the day at Cancers Below the Belt, where Virginia Commonwealth University’s Debbie Cadet, Ph.D., M.S.W., moderated a panel of community leaders and experts in prostate and colorectal cancer disparities.

Debbie Cadet, Ph.D., MSW, program manager for community health education & research at the VCU Massey Cancer Center, hosted the Feb. 9 event.

Hosted by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and VCU Massey Cancer Center, the event was the second in a quarterly series that addresses pressing topics in health equity. The November event concerned lung health.

“African-American men are nearly two times more likely to get prostate cancer and have prostate cancer that forms, grows and spreads more quickly compared to white men,” said Cadet, program manager for community health education & research at Massey’s Office of Health Equity and Disparities Research. “They are nearly three times more likely to die from prostate cancer compared to white men.”

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There are no targeted drugs to treat triple-negative breast cancer. A VCU student aims to fix that.

By Anne Dreyfuss
VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

More than 268,000 people will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in 2019. Of them, 20 percent will learn they have triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that tests negative for the three most common receptors known to fuel breast cancer growth — estrogen, progesterone and a protein called human epidermal growth factor. Since triple-negative breast cancer lacks the receptors that would allow it to be targeted by currently available drugs, physicians are limited in their ability to treat it.

“Given the current standard of care, patients who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer don’t do as well as patients who have other forms of the disease,” said Tia Turner, a Virginia Commonwealth University M.D.-Ph.D. student.

Turner wants to change that narrative. The VCU School of Medicine graduate student recently received a National Cancer Institute grant to fund her research, which is aimed at uncovering novel drug combinations to treat triple-negative breast cancer. Ultimately, Turner hopes to discover effective, safe, targeted treatment regimens for patients with advanced forms of the disease.

“Triple-negative breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat because we don’t have markers that can be targeted by certain types of drugs,” Turner said, adding that the only currently approved medical therapy — chemotherapy — is highly toxic and often ineffective. “We need new and better treatments to help people who have been diagnosed with this devastating disease.”

For the past few years, Turner has worked in the pathology laboratory of Chuck Harrell, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center and an assistant professor of pathology in the VCU School of Medicine. Turner performs cell culture screenings of drugs — 1,363 to be exact —most of which are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of other diseases.

“We look for patterns in certain classes of drugs,” Turner said. “It is a good way to narrow down drugs that are effective that we otherwise might not have thought of testing against cancer.”

The drugs Turner tests are approved for treating conditions ranging from cardiac arrhythmias to depression. “We have also seen that a vitamin D drug has been effective at killing tumor cells,” she said. By developing effective combinations of drugs that are already FDA-approved, she aims for her research to make breakthroughs in the field of triple-negative breast cancer treatment that could quickly be translated to the clinical setting.

Translating research from the laboratory to the clinic is what fuels Turner’s passion for science. The 29-year-old New York native chose to attend VCU because of the medical school curriculum’s emphasis on a bench-to-bedside mentality, which Turner said is essential to effectively conducting translational science. She most enjoys the interactive, discussion-based courses in which clinicians and researchers lead students in conversations about patients’ clinical cases.

“We discuss the patients’ diagnosis and treatment plan from a clinical perspective, as well as from a more basic science perspective,” Turner said, adding that the program is heavily focused on integrating clinical trials with basic science research. 

Turner is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical and translational sciences with a concentration in cancer and molecular medicine through the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. After defending her dissertation next spring, she will spend two more years finishing her medical degree. Her goal is to work at an academic medical center where she can maintain a clinical practice, teach and do research.

“As a physician, you run the risk of losing sight of where the tools and medications you’re using to treat patients came from,” Turner said. “The majority of the tools we use as clinicians emerged from pre-clinical research. My time working in the lab has made me realize how important that part of the translational science spectrum really is.”

Turner was encouraged by her M.D.-Ph.D. classmates and professors to apply for the NCI grant, which is intended to enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising dual-doctoral degree students who are interested in pursuing careers as clinician-scientists. The National Research Service Award is highly competitive, and the grant application process is notoriously rigorous. Turner said she relied on her friends and mentors for help preparing it.

“A lot of the other M.D.-Ph.D. students were helpful in providing me with advice on the structure of the grant application,” Turner said.

Now with the help of her fellow classmates and professors in conducting the research, Turner said she is encouraged by the research team’s initial results. She hopes her work one day will lead to new treatment options for people who are battling triple-negative breast cancer.

“I hope that our research can eventually help people with advanced or metastatic triple-negative breast cancer who are not responding to current therapies or who develop recurrences of the disease,” Turner said. “We need to offer more treatment options for those patients.”



Wright Center translational science classes inspire VCU cancer researcher

Headshot of Dr. Lathika Mohanraj
Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D.

By Blake Belden
VCU Massey Cancer Center

Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., identifies genetic biomarkers that could aid in the early detection of patients at risk for complications from bone marrow transplantation, hematologic cancers and other malignancies.

Her mother, a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with the disease while Mohanraj was an undergrad student in India. Living through that experience solidified her passion to pursue a career in cancer research and treatment.

“Watching my mom go through it and going to the hospital and seeing the other cancer patients there — it was a lot for me to experience at an impressionable age,” Mohanraj said. “That triggered my interest, and from then on I knew that’s what I was going to do.” Read More

Ayesha Chawla, Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, Ph.D. candidate in the Cancer and Molecular Medicine concentration (CaMM), is featured in VCU News

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in Mumbai, India, in 2011, Chawla came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Mumbai native’s interest in cancer research eventually led her to VCU’s Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, where she has been performing intensive research in colon and pancreatic cancer at Massey Cancer Center since August 2013. “Understanding the complexity of the disease is my key interest,” Chawla said. The 28-year-old researcher works in the laboratory of Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., who is chair of the School of Medicine’s Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care. Grossman is also the deputy director and Dianne Nunnally Hoppes Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Chawla’s favorite memories at VCU have come from the time she spent with VCU’s Indian cultural organization, Tiranga.

“I love this organization,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of it because it would not only bring me closer to the VCU community, but it would also groom my organization and interpersonal skills.”

Through Tiranga, Chawla worked with other students to organize cultural events and participate in International Student Orientation. They also hosted fundraisers and welcomed new Indian students to VCU.

“As part of [Tiranga] I spent time with people from different cultures and organizations,” Chawla said. “It was the richest experience I got at VCU.”

Chawla will continue at VCU as a post-doctoral researcher in the same laboratory where she did her doctoral research. Eventually, she hopes to work as a research scientist at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company.

“Cancer research is the need of the hour with increasing incidence rates of the disease,” Chawla said. “I want to contribute my part to the science of cancer by developing mechanisms for curing it.”

Read about more talented VCU students here: