AACR 2020 Session Addresses Racial Inequality in Medicine

By Adam Hochron
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With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research to hold its annual meeting in a virtual format, and protests around the country demanding racial equality, the president of the organization held a roundtable discussion on what can be done to bring equality to the medical profession. 

Even before the session, the AACR released a press release opposing racial discrimination and racial inequality. In the statement, the organization said it was “outraged and saddened about the pervasive racism and social injustices toward African Americans in our country and all people of color around the world.” 

“As a scientific organization focused on the conquest of cancer whose core values include equality, diversity, and inclusion, we stand in solidarity in denouncing the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others before them whose lives have been taken because of racism,” the statement said. “Research is driving tremendous progress against cancer and other human diseases, but the grim reality is that these advances have not benefitted everyone equally. Progress has come too slowly for people of color, and the monumental cost of health disparities in terms of health inequities, premature deaths, and the impact on communities must be immediately addressed.”

In his opening remarks, Dr. Antoni Ribas, of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, said the session was meant to be a “frank and open discussion,” made even more critical by recent events. 

“This is not about politics. This is not about policy. This is not about a particular incident or incidents. This is about who we are and how we interpret scientific facts,” he said. “Today, we will dig into issues about which we have kept quiet for way too long because it was too difficult or too painful to talk about them.” 

The discussion included doctors, leaders in the field of pharmaceuticals, a medical student, and representatives of the NIH and FDA, and covered a wide range of topics, including the recent events and what can be done to make the field of cancer research more inclusive to people of color. 

John D. Carpten, PhD, professor and chair of translational genomics and director of the Institute of Translational Genomics at the Keck School of Medicine called the recent events “incredibly emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically draining,” and left him wondering what more he can do considering his role as a leader in his field and community. 

“It was a moment when I said to myself no matter what I do, no matter what I accomplish in my life, the first thing someone will see in me is Black,” he said. “For a while, I walked around with almost a feeling of hopelessness that I could never accomplish enough in life. I’m beginning to feel a bit more hope for my three grandsons, and my nephews, and the next generation because of the actions of the people and the actions of the community and the actions of all people globally who are seeing this and are raising their voices against oppression that has been and continues to be applied to African Americans in the United States of America.” 

Robert Winn, MD, director of the Massey Cancer Center, said he was also encouraged by the response to the recent events, saying that a “unified voice is more critical now than it’s ever been. 

“That it has taken a viral pandemic and a chronical racial sort of endemic to intersect for us to wake up to our national state of delirium, to be quite honest with you, if it took all this to get here, then that’s what it took,” he said. “I suggest that we just need to do, and to have the will is the hardest part of this whole issue.” 

Winn said earlier in his career he had worked in admissions at the University of Colorado, where he made a point to recruit minorities to the school.

“The pools are there. The reality is you have to know about them and then get over your inertia to humble yourselves to go to the schools to get the best players, or the best academics, or the best researchers. I refute that we don’t know how to get this done.”

Lola Fashoyin-Aje, MD, of the FDA, said her organization is continuing work started several years ago aimed at increasing enrollment of minorities in clinical trials for diseases that have a more significant impact on those communities. While she said the results of that effort have been disappointing in some ways so far, she knows there is more that can be done. 

“I think we need to be in the business of ensuring that the drugs we approve are working for a majority of patients,” she said. “We really need to take bold action. We know what works. We know there’s a problem. And we know we need to fix it.” 

In his closing remarks, Ribas said he had been “touched” and “inspired” by the session and promised to follow up with the lessons he learned. He also said that the issues discussed will be one of the main initiatives for the AACR over the coming year.


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