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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded a $17.7 million grant renewal to the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC). The five-year grant will help three Chicago universities enhance their partnerships in many of the city’s underserved communities, and strengthen their efforts to foster meaningful cancer research, education, training and outreach.                              

Established to advance cancer health equity in the city of Chicago, ChicagoCHEC brings together the synergistic strengths of two federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), with a world class NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University (Lurie Cancer Center). The collaborative is the first of its kind in the Midwest.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Chicago communities that are low-income or predominantly African-American or Latino face cancer death rates up to double the national average. The efforts of ChicagoCHEC will continue to be led by community-oriented physician-scientists and researchers:

  • Melissa Simon, M.D., M.P.H., the George H. Gardner, MD, Professor of Clinical Gynecology, director of the Center for Health Equity Transformation, and co-leader of the Cancer Control and Survivorship Program at Lurie Cancer Center, and Joseph Feinglass, Ph.D., Research Professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University
  • Marian Fitzgibbon, Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy and Administration, Associate Director of the Population Health, Behavior and Outcomes Program, and John Stewart, M.D., M.B.A., Professor of Surgery, Associate Director for Clinical Research in the Department of Surgery at the University of Illinois Chicago
  • Christina Ciecierski, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, and Lidia Filus, Ph.D. Professor and Chair of Mathematics at Northeastern Illinois University

The original U54 grant from the NCI was announced in October 2015. One mission of the first five years of the grant included mobilizing researchers, educators, community leaders, students, organizations and patients in innovative cancer education and outreach programs to improve health. This included fostering and working with communities and organizations that are already working toward improving cancer equity in the city of Chicago. To that end, ChicagoCHEC established a 24-member Community Steering Committee.

The community steering committee members participated in research project selection, served as Project Co-Investigators, supported summer student programming, organized annual Community Forums, and co-authored six peer-reviewed health policy publications with ChicagoCHEC faculty on topics such as HPV, colorectal cancer screening, and financial toxicity and cancer treatment. In addition, the Outreach core of ChicagoCHEC has planned and/or participated in more than 120 community events in Chicago, reaching more than 18,800 individuals, and Community Health Educators in alignment with the National Outreach Network conducted 76 events. The Outreach Core also hosted annual community forums that brought together diverse sets of community members to share information and resources about topics such as cancer screening and treatment.

ChicagoCHEC also provides training, mentoring and learning opportunities to recruit and retain minority and underrepresented students in health and cancer research careers. During the past five years, the Research Education Core launched the ChicagoCHEC Fellows Program and the companion program, Laboratory Experiences and Programs (LEaP). So far, there have been four cohorts totaling 89 students from NEIU, UIC, City Colleges of Chicago, and NU, which were all URM and/or first-generation college students.

Another focus for ChicagoCHEC includes establishing multidisciplinary research programs in cancer disparities, including those that incorporate biomedical, socio-behavioral, basic and translational science. During the first five years of the grant, ChicagoCHEC initiated the ChicagoCHEC Incubator and Catalyst Grants Program with nine completed cancer research projects involving 32 investigators (40% Under Represented Minorities (URM) across the three institutions, 77 students (59% URM) and 12 community partners. Three additional projects are currently underway as part of the grant renewal.

During the first five years, ChicagoCHEC supported the career development and advancement of minority and underrepresented faculty and scientists. In that time, a number of ChicagoCHEC’s underrepresented faculty and faculty conducting cancer disparities research have earned promotions and tenure, including 11 at NEIU, three at Lurie Cancer Center, and three at UIC. There have also been career development awards granted to ChicagoCHEC early career faculty, including a K01 (Yamile Molina, UIC), K12 (Betina Yanez, Lurie Cancer Center), and an NCI CURE Diversity Research Supplement (Francisco Iacobelli, NEIU) and recruitment of two cancer research faculty at UIC.

UIC and NEIU have track records of enrolling and graduating students from minority and traditionally underserved backgrounds and have longstanding partnerships with Chicago communities. An important goal for the collaborative is to build bridges between the Lurie Cancer Center and UIC and Northeastern. This includes efforts to enhance the research capacity at NEIU, which launched its Master of Public Health program with cancer-relevant curriculum developed by ChicagoCHEC. The program includes a concentration in cancer health disparities, and NEIU offers new courses in cancer health policy, health disparities, and mathematical modeling in cancer risk assessment. NEIU also launched the new Center of Health.

ChicagoCHEC was instrumental in establishing the Center for Health Equity Transformation, a joint center between the Lurie Cancer Center and the Institute for Public Health and Medicine led by Dr. Simon at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, as well as the establishment of the Center for Health Equity Research at UIC, further bolstering cancer research infrastructure at UI Cancer Center.

ChicagoCHEC has a number of goals for the new funding cycle:

  • Strengthen a transformational alliance between UIC, NEIU, and the Lurie Cancer Center in pursuit of cancer health equity in Chicago
  • Initiate, conduct and support innovative basic science, translational, clinical and prevention and control-focused cancer research, with emphasis on cancer health disparities
  • Develop and implement cancer-related education and outreach activities generated with the engagement of underserved communities across Chicago
  • Coordinate research education and mentoring opportunities to recruit, retain and advance a pipeline of underrepresented students in cancer research careers and to develop early career faculty who will forge independent cancer research careers
  • Conduct ongoing rigorous evaluation of ChicagoCHEC activities

Since the launch of ChicagoCHEC in 2015, there has been rapid growth in collaborative infrastructure built across the three partnering institutions; enhanced cancer research engagement, capacity, and education; extensive community outreach and engagement; and encouraging advancement of ChicagoCHEC faculty and students. ChicagoCHEC projects and programs provided research experiences to 155 students, provided cancer research and leadership opportunities for 57 faculty, 47 extramural grants were submitted, 24 grants were awarded and directly resulted in 109 peer-reviewed publications including a ChicagoCHEC focused Special Issue peer reviewed and published in Progress in Community Health Partnerships (2019).

ChicagoCHEC will leverage the momentum forged by the initial U54 award and its diverse team of faculty, students, and partners, and connectivity to Chicago’s underserved communities to drive innovative cancer research, research education, and community outreach and engagement that cuts across disciplinary and institutional boundaries to reduce health disparities in cancer in the city of Chicago.