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Dr. Marvella Ford Brings Cancer Health Disparities Research to South Carolina

Marvella Ford, Ph.D.

Two investigators at the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Hollings Cancer Center—Marvella E. Ford (Ph.D.) and Nestor F. Esnaola (M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A.), were awarded a five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) R01 grant this past April.

Their research will evaluate the impact of a patient navigation intervention in reducing barriers to surgical cancer care and improving surgical resection rates among African Americans with Stage I-II non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Two hundred African Americans will be recruited from six geographically diverse sites within a southeastern cancer clinical trials network to participate in a two-arm, cluster randomized trial comparing enhanced versus usual care.

While early-stage NSCLC is highly treatable, Ford and Esnaola's research has shown that disparities are still evident. Their 2008 scientific paper in the Annals of Surgery demonstrated that among patients diagnosed with localized NSCLC in South Carolina, African Americans were significantly less likely to undergo surgery compared with European Americans (44.7% versus 63.4%, p < 0.0001). The authors concluded, "After controlling for…sociodemographic, comorbidity, and tumor factors, African American race was found to be a powerful, independent predictor of underuse of surgical resection."

Ford hopes to see better retention of underserved communities in clinical trials and improved patient navigation. This, she hopes, will lead to state-of-the-art care being provided to those communities.

In addition to the R01, Ford received an NIH/NCI P20 grant in 2011, which included South Carolina State University as the partnering minority-serving institution (PI: Dr. Judith D. Salley). The research supported by this grant is one of only a few studies in the U.S. to investigate cancer disparities in South Carolina's Sea Island residents. African Americans from the Sea Islands are the most genetically homogeneous black population in the U.S. They are direct descendants of West Africans, primarily from Sierra Leone. The hope is that Sea Island's black population could hold answers as to why African Americans develop and die from some cancers at a higher rate than European Americans.

The $800,000-plus grant established the South Carolina Cancer Disparities Research Center, with its mission of investigating cancer disparities and training future scientists. Research focuses on breast and prostate cancers, which affect African Americans at markedly disproportionate rates compared to members of other racially/ethnically diverse groups. The study is also exploring whether genetic differences play a role in disparities.

"The more we know about how genetic makeup contributes to cancer onset and progression, the better we will be able to develop drugs targeted toward each person's genetic makeup, which will give us greater ammunition in our cancer-fighting arsenal," Ford said.

Ford grew up not in the south but in the Adirondack mountains near Plattsburgh, New York. However, after moving to South Carolina, she soon found that issues impacting the medically underserved in the Adirondacks were amazingly similar to the issues confronting the medically underserved in South Carolina.

Ford's interest in medicine is due, in part, to the early deaths she experienced in her family. Her grandparents died before she was born and both of her parents died by the time she was just 41.

Ford earned her Ph.D. in 1992 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. From 1992–1994, she completed a fellowship in Public Health and Aging, also at the University of Michigan. Currently, Ford is an Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the MUSC College of Medicine in Charleston, South Carolina, and Associate Director for Cancer Disparities at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Her research interests include cancer disparities, biological and genetic factors and mechanisms that contribute to disease, gerontology, and recruitment and retention of diverse populations in cancer clinical trials.

To date, Ford has been awarded 11 research grants as PI and has had 59 scientific papers published or accepted for publication. She is the recipient of more than 18 honors and awards, including the 2012 MUSC Martin Luther King, Jr. Award and the 2010 MUSC Earl B. Higgins Achievement in Diversity Award. In addition, she has been a member of numerous NIH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review panels.

Updated: 01/10/14