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NMSU, Hutchinson Center receive a $9 million grant for cancer research

New Mexico State University in conjunction with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., received a $9 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to support cancer research, internships and outreach activities in the span of five years.


Professor showing grant.
Mary O'Connell, professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, serves as the director of the $9 million cancer research grant presented to New Mexico State University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (NMSU Photo by Angela Simental)

"We work together as team members. The Hutchinson Center is considered the expert in cancer research. They have a great deal of concentrated expertise on all types of cancer research practices, public health and population science research," said Mary O'Connell, principal investigator for the grant and professor in NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

NMSU, one of the top Hispanic-serving institutions, was considered for its expertise on health disparity topics and working with diverse and underrepresented populations.

"The main reason we wanted to work with NMSU is that it is a majority minority institution, located in a part of the country with a concentrated population of underserved people," said Beti Thompson, scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Public Health Division. "There are a lot of people suffering from health disparities. Here at the Fred Hutchinson, we have a real mandate to try to reduce cancer and health disparities."

This particular funding mechanism awards budgeted amounts to the Hutchinson Center, which received $5 million, and to NMSU, which received the remaining $4 million. Even though the money is allocated separately, they must work together in all aspects of cancer research.

"The money is spent on activities for the teams of scientists. Money at the Hutch may be spent to support NMSU students, while money at NMSU may be spent to buy supplies that support research being done at both the Hutch and NMSU," O'Connell said.

The main goal of working together is to develop approaches that target underserved populations in the country, but primarily Hispanic and Native American groups.

At NMSU, research efforts encompass the colleges of Health and Social Services, Engineering, Agricultural, Environmental and Consumer Sciences, and the College of Arts and Sciences, each working on unique projects that target different aspects of research that span from technology to nutrition and lifestyle.

"They are all working on their specific projects, but contributing to the mission of this grant, which is to do cancer research and cancer outreach for the benefit of New Mexicans."

Cancer research has been conducted in New Mexico for at least 10 years, O'Connell said, but until now, it had not been organized into a program "with multiple facets in the scale that this partnership entails."

"We are expected to have an impact beyond New Mexico," O'Connell said. "New Mexico State is a land-grant institution, and when I develop research, I need to make sure it is responsive to the needs of New Mexico, which this one certainly is. But then, I also need to make sure that they spend federal dollars effectively so that the information moves out to other members of the country and even the world."

NMSU and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have been working together for several years with other grants. This $9 million grant, however, will allow NMSU to expand outreach activities for the first time.

"This is a very important part of this grant," Said Rebecca Palacios, assistant professor of the College of Health and Social Services and director of the Outreach Core program. "The previous funding cycles did not include an Outreach Core, so there were no funds to conduct outreach to the community, educate and increase awareness. We have some underserved populations that really need health education to increase cancer awareness and promote cancer prevention and the importance of early detection."

O'Connell added that cancer awareness and research go beyond regular visits to the doctor or getting screened. An overlooked part of cancer awareness, for Hispanics and Native Americans, is nutrition.

"For example, one of the projects involves teaching gardening and vegetable consumption among Navajos. While it may not appear to be cancer specific, it certainly works toward improved health. Cancer is a chronic condition which can be prevented and reduced in severity by behavior modifications," she said.

As part of the outreach activities, NMSU will partner with local agencies to educate the public and encourage those agencies to seek grants for additional funding. The Hutchinson Center will contribute by sending experts to speak at medical conferences.

The Outreach Core will also provide continuous training for healthcare providers in New Mexico. Palacios said healthcare providers need to understand the culture of these populations in order to help them. She added that the outreach programs will be tailored primarily to the Hispanic and Native American cultures.

"Outreach efforts with healthcare providers serve two purposes: One, is to increase cultural competency and the second is to increase knowledge, among providers in our region, on the most advanced medical findings regarding cancer prevention and treatment."

Student-led research and professional development are crucial components of the program as well.

"There is a biology course that was developed to address cancer-related topics, and
students who take the course usually intern at the Fred Hutchinson Center, then continue into graduate programs," O'Connell said. "We started to build and leverage numerous activities on campus, in collaboration with the Hutch, that improve professional development for the students and faculty."

One way the academic partnership works is by NMSU hosting intensive training for post-doctoral students who seek to learn about teaching while, in exchange, the Hutchinson Center welcomes NMSU students for summer internships.

"Basically, we offer them the opportunity to work with an investigator, very intensely for nine weeks," Thompson said. "We have many students that as a result of their experiences here, go on to pursue degrees in graduate school or medical school. Without a doubt, they all say that their experience was important to them in making the decision to pursue their academic careers."

The internship in Seattle helps students shape their career and for many participants like Janet Sanchez, NMSU alumni and NMSU Cancer Health Educator, changes their entire career course.

"My goal was to attend med school, but at the internship I was introduced to public health," said Sanchez, who interned in 2005. "This motivated me to enter into the master's of public health program here at New Mexico State. After completion, I was hired to be the community health educator."

Sanchez added that one of the most important lessons she learned at the internship was the importance of research and how it is adapted to benefit and inform communities.

Max Ruben, a senior majoring in biology who received the 2013 internship, said the internship, in combination with his major, gave him the experience needed to attend medical school.

"This internship has been one of the most intellectually challenging experiences in my life," he said. "It not only looks good in my resume, but I gained critical thinking skills and made connections with my mentors."

In 2018, NMSU and the Fred Hutchinson Center will be eligible to renew their grant.

"This type of grant is difficult to maintain in this climate of competition," O'Connell said. "But, it reflects well on the caliber of research, outreach and training being conducted here."