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Expert NMSU researchers, young scientists, outreach teams join forces in battle with cancer

A premier cancer research partnership at New Mexico State University is not only fostering extensive cancer research activity, it also is developing the next generation of cancer scientists and a new level of outreach, primarily to underserved populations across New Mexico.

Portrait photo of a woman
Regents Professor Mary O’Connell, principal investigator for the research partnership between New Mexico State University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, leads a cross-disciplinary team of research faculty. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

The partnership, which has roots going back to 2002, is between NMSU and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It is in the midst of a five-year, $9 million funding cycle from the National Cancer Institute’s Comprehensive Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity that continues at least until 2018, when the supporting National Institutes of Health grants will again be up for renewal.

Regents Professor Mary O’Connell, principal investigator for the partnership at NMSU and a faculty member in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is leading a team that includes faculty researchers from the College of ACES, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and the College of Health and Social Services.

One of the major objectives of the partnership is a chance to build a human resource of scientists who will be dedicated to serving the underserved in New Mexico.

“We have great minds, great people, great talent here,” O’Connell said. “I think NMSU does a wonderful job, more so than any other place, giving an opportunity to just about anybody. If you want to work a little bit, you can be really polished, and come out of here spectacular. What we need to do is get those people, especially those stars, those sparkled-up folks, to stay, help build the economy in the state, help build the infrastructure in the state, help improve lives in the state.”

Thanks in part to the partnership, O’Connell said, that already is happening.

“I think there are a bunch of people who are very interested, committed and willing to do that,” she said.

Several people who have gone through the program have decided to put their experience and education toward helping those in New Mexico who are outside the “clinical stream” and are not receiving preventive or health care services. One of them is NMSU graduate Ernesto Moralez, now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado.

“If we’re talking about health disparities, being from New Mexico, they’re right here,” Moralez said in a video produced for the partnership. “If we’re talking about issues of border health, we’re just a few short miles away. The Fred Hutch and New Mexico State gave me the confidence to say not only do I belong, but I’m really excited about where I’m going to go from here.”

During the 13-year history of the partnership, many like Moralez have worked their way through the process of obtaining an education at NMSU, often supplemented by undergraduate and graduate internships as well as master’s- and Ph.D.-level research opportunities, all at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Moralez was inspired during his internship at FHCRC.

“I always felt really valued,” Moralez said of his experience in the program. “Established researchers actually cared about what I had to say. I was saying things and using terminology that I had picked up here at New Mexico State.”

O’Connell said the experience allows NMSU students to work in a world-class research institution where hundreds of employees are all focused on the same agenda: to reduce the impact of cancer on people’s lives.

Their time at Seattle with world-class researchers is reciprocated when post-doctoral students at FHCRC take part in teaching experiences at NMSU, a program led by NMSU Associate Professor Michele Shuster, an investigator for the partnership who leads the Integrated Teaching and Evaluation Core.

Development of new researchers is closely connected to the development of new research. Leading those efforts in this funding cycle are investigators Amanda Ashley, research assistant professor in Animal and Range Sciences, working on a pilot project to identify therapeutic targets for doxorubicin-resistant breast cancer; Ryan Ashley, assistant professor in Animal and Range Sciences, working on a project to advance understanding of hormonal contributors to breast cancer etiology and progression; and Jessica Houston, assistant professor in Chemical Engineering, working on a time-resolved flow cytometric study of cell signaling.

Kevin Lombard, associate professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is working on “Where Health and Horticulture Intersect: A Navajo Wellness Collaboration,” and Rebecca Palacios, associate professor of Public Health Sciences, is focused on promoting health-related research on the Mexican-American population.

The NMSU team is building on accomplishments the partnership already has generated, including 95 publications, 62 awarded grants, 26 projects, one patent and 358 trainees and people who have been mentored.

Along with the growth in research expertise and discovery, the partnership also is growing a network of health outreach opportunities. The goal for both NMSU and FHCRC is to reach underserved populations, primarily Hispanics and Native Americans. That is a natural fit for NMSU, as a land-grant and Hispanic-serving institution, but what about FHCRC?

“We share a commitment to a particular underserved population,” O’Connell said. “You might not anticipate this, but Washington State has a pretty large agricultural component. Washington’s Yakima Valley is harvested by Hispanic farm workers, and that population has similar health disparities to the folks in New Mexico, especially the agricultural-based population.

“They are concerned about access to care, people being undocumented, people being permanent U.S. citizens and being perceived as not, language barriers, cultural concerns about cancer and what it means, health literacy, exposure to environmental pollutants, ag pollutants, ag problems, things like that,” she said. “We might, on some levels, look very different, but on many, many levels, we’re not.”

Leading outreach in the southern part of New Mexico is cancer health educator Janeth Sanchez, while Eugenia Armijo serves Native American populations in the Four Corners.

NMSU’s role as a land-grant university serves the partnership well with its established network of Cooperative Extension Service offices across the state in every county.

“Janeth is working very closely with the CES offices in all the counties and going to them to conduct Cancer 101 training or doing it on a webinar so that those folks in the county offices know what our government thinks is the best information should one of the people come to them and ask about cancer,” O’Connell said. “We’re giving the NMSU CES offices high-quality content on cancer prevention and screening that is vetted by the National Cancer Institute.”

One of the ways Sanchez gets the word out is by bringing a large, walk-through inflatable colon to health fairs and other events.

“The story that they’re told at these booths is the importance of lifelong behavior – diet, nutrition, exercise – and how to go online to get your particular risk factors assessed at NCI,” O’Connell said. “We’re doing this with any county Extension program that wants us to come.”

O’Connell says the outreach includes public libraries and is being expanded to faith-based ministries.

“Our goal is to help get this information to people who are not in the clinical stream already,” O’Connell said. “So we are not trying to develop interventions that work in the hospital waiting room or in a clinic office. We’re trying to get to the people who haven’t even gotten there yet.”

One of the screening recommendations not often followed is to get a colonoscopy. O’Connell said that is particularly true of Hispanic men. But she pointed out that while a colonoscopy may be uncomfortable, the results of not detecting cancer can be far worse.

“It’s a somewhat rude screening, but dying of colon cancer is not nice; it’s not nice to you, it’s not nice to your family,” O’Connell said. “So, let’s take care of your family – go get screened.”

And while cancer rates are actually lower in New Mexico than national averages, particularly among Hispanics, mortality rates are higher, O’Connell said.

“People present with later-stage cancers. So they’re not getting care as soon as they could,” she said. “They may have unusually aggressive cancers or they may not be getting into the treatment stream early enough. So let’s take care of those people who don’t get into the treatment stream. We need to pay attention to this.”