NAU receives $6.83 million grant to continue community-based Native American cancer prevention program

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Northern Arizona University has been awarded $6.83 million to continue its efforts in cancer research, training and outreach programs serving Native American communities for the next five years.

Since 2002, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC) have received funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to alleviate the unequal burden of cancer among Native Americans through the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP).

NACP is one of 16 such partnerships funded by NCI, but it is the only one dedicated solely to the Native American population. The program’s unique mission is to work closely with Native American communities in the region to address their health concerns related to cancer. The program’s structure honors the culture of the Native American communities it serves, fosters culturally appropriate research capacity and builds cultural competency in the field of cancer research by increasing the number of Native American undergraduate and graduate students trained in cancer research, prevention, control and health care policy—effectively increasing the Native American biomedical workforce.

Over the past 17 years, NACP research projects have examined the presence of uranium on Navajo land and its potential to increase risks for cancer. Additional achievements resulting from collaboration include improved breast cancer screening rates among the Hopi people, the Navajo Nation’s second multi-year Cancer Health Report and physical activity intervention programs for cancer survivors.

Five-year vision: Focus on research projects that engage Native American communities

Jani Ingram, NAU professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a member of the Navajo Nation, has been collaborating with NACP since 2003; she became the project’s principal investigator in 2016. Her vision for the next five years is “to center NACP’s immediate priorities on further enhancing our strong partnership to make an even greater impact toward addressing cancer health disparities for Native Americans in the Southwest.”

The projects funded by NCI with this award reflect a shift in the type of cancer research conducted through NACP.

“We are intentionally moving from laboratory-based basic science research to projects that engage Native American communities in at least one of their aims,” Ingram said. “Our Outreach Core, which works with members of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation and Tohono O’odham Nation, has set the foundation for these community-engaged projects through the relationships they have developed with tribal communities.”

One of the most critical research projects will explore the prevalence of the bacteria H. pylori in the Navajo Nation population and its association with PNACP logohigher rates of stomach cancer—which is three times higher than that of the non-Hispanic white population in Arizona. Led by NAU investigators Fernando Monroy, a professor of biological sciences, and Priscilla Sanderson, an associate professor of health sciences, in collaboration with UACC investigators Robin Harris and Juanita Merchant, the study will engage Navajo Nation community participants to both understand and increase awareness of current perceptions and risk factors for stomach cancer and H. pylori.

Another project, funded as a pilot, will use a community-based participatory approach to address breast and cervical cancer screening disparities among Native American women experiencing intellectual disabilities. Project leaders Heather Williamson, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at NAU, and Julie Armin of UACC are joined by mentor and co-investigator Julie Baldwin, a Regents’ Professor of health sciences and director of the Center for Health Equity Research, to build partnerships with Native communities to culturally adapt an existing cancer screening education program specifically for this population.

“We have an ongoing, long-term commitment to reducing the significant disparities in cancer care among Native American communities,” Ingram said. “We will be able to accomplish much more now that NACP is funded for five more years.”

“This partnership between NAU and UACC represents our best collaborative effort to address the unequal burden of cancer that Native American communities continue to experience throughout Arizona and beyond,” NAU President Rita Hartung Cheng said. “Our talented researchers continue to serve these communities, making a positive impact on their health and well-being while providing our students vital education and training in biomedical research.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under the awards for the Partnership of Native American Cancer Prevention U54CA143925 (NAU) and U54CA143924 (UACC).

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Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research
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