Big Ideas

Jeffrey Clarke, M.D. & Jennifer Freedman, Ph.D.

We’ve been trying to learn more about cancer – and stop it – for thousands  of years. Recorded history shows everything from palliative care to primitive surgeries occurring even before anesthesia. No matter the method of treatment, the goal was always the same. Stop the cancer … end the disease. Science has progressed to having successful cancer treatment options, but some are hard on the body, and cancer has figured out a way to outsmart some of the treatments. Now we’re working on a way to outsmart the cancer.

Chemotherapy has long been a staple in cancer treatment, and for good reason. It’s an atomic bomb. It can get the job done, but damage is done to more than just the cancer. What if we could dissect the genes of cancer and learn the basic biology of how it works? How could we improve treatments with that knowledge?

Dr. Jeffrey Clarke and Dr. Jennifer Freedman are part of a research team focused on lung cancer at Duke Cancer Institute. Lung cancer is an aggressive cancer and the cause of most cancer deaths in the U.S. The grant, supported by the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina and the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund,  has these scientists examining an especially important question – why are some cancers particularly aggressive in certain racial groups? And what can we do about it?

“What drives some cancers to be more aggressive? Our lab wants to help reduce cancer disparities among racial groups,” Freedman said. “A greater number of African Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer, and a greater number die from lung cancer, even after normalizing for factors related to access to care. There are biological differences that make certain cancers more aggressive. We want to use the funds awarded toward identifying the biological differences underlying the more aggressive lung cancer biology in African Americans. We hope this leads to new tools to predict how aggressive someone’s cancer will be. And, we hope this leads to new treatments for aggressive lung cancers. Such tools and treatments will improve outcomes for those of all races with aggressive lung cancer.”

Our hope is that our work will improve the understanding of reasons for racial differences in outcomes for those with lung cancer; and by studying the gene expression of these tumors, we will find new ways to treat lung cancer in the future.

Clarke and Freedman have another unique challenge (beyond studying what makes cancer “tick”). On the clinical research side, minorities are underrepresented in bio banks nationwide.

“Researchers depend on samples,” Clarke explains. “But the vast majority are from Caucasians. We will use a cultural training program to improve the engagement of African American lung cancer patients in blood and tissue banking for research. Our hope is that our work will improve the understanding of reasons for racial differences in outcomes for those with lung cancer; and by studying the gene expression of these tumors, we will find new ways to treat lung cancer in the future.”

Great minds are coming together to solve this urgent problem. And they are even collaborating across labs to do it. Dr. Chad Pecot, another Stuart Scott Fund recipient and assistant professor at the UNC School of Medicine, has reached out to Clarke and Freedman’s team to advance the science even more. Pecot recognized the same problem – having only a small number of samples available. The two teams are working on a plan to make the advances come faster and go farther.

The contributions of V Foundation supporters are driving extraordinary science and collaboration. The teamwork we see – from donors to doctors and scientists – means one day we will achieve victory over cancer.