Big Ideas

Jong Park, Ph.D.

Prostate cancer is the second most-common cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death in American men. In fact, the National Cancer Institute estimates approximately 11% of men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. These are startling statistics, but they are even more stark for African-American men, who have a 70% higher prostate cancer incidence rate and twice the mortality rate of American Caucasian males.

Jong Park, Ph.D., Moffitt Cancer Center, didn’t begin his scientific work in the cancer field. He was originally slated to research viral diseases, such as viral meningitis and AIDS. However, as far too many have experienced, a family connection to cancer eventually led him to the field. Park first chose prostate cancer because it is so common among men. When he dove deeper and learned about the disparities among African-American men, he knew he wanted to make an impact.

“Because African-American men tend to be diagnosed more often, and with a more aggressive form of prostate cancer, we wanted to perform studies that would help more doctors give African-American patients the right treatment,” said Park. “We know that genetic factors play a role in these cancer health disparities. So, we will look for genetic biomarkers in prostate tumors to learn if the patient has an aggressive form of prostate cancer.”

“This kind of medicine is tailored to the biology of the individual, making it more effective than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”

A biomarker is simply an indicator of the severity and/or presence of a disease in the body. By studying more patients with prostate cancer, Park said he hopes they can discover trends that will lead to earlier diagnosis as well as more effective treatments.

Park’s grant, a 2017 V Foundation Translational Grant, is funded by the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund. Established in memory of legendary ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott, the fund looks to improve outcomes for African-Americans and other minorities disproportionately affected by cancer.

By gathering new data among African-American prostate cancer patients, Park will help make treatments more personalized. “Because we have proposed to identify specific genetic biomarkers, in the near future we’ll allow doctors to provide patients with personalized treatment based on their individual genetic profile,” said Park. “This kind of medicine is tailored to the biology of the individual, making it more effective than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”

A hurdle in the past for gathering the necessary data has been the lack of African-American participants in cancer studies. Park is determined to overcome that challenge. “More participants means more powerful research,” said Park. “I’m currently leading the Florida African-American prostate cancer biobank study that recruits African-American prostate cancer patients diagnosed in the last three years.”

Park and his team are also part of a larger, nationwide prostate cancer study among African-Americans, involving nine institutes across six states. They anticipate they’ll be able to recruit 10,000 African-American prostate cancer patients through this program, which will provide critical information including biological samples, clinical information and questionnaire data.

These studies will help more African-Americans successfully navigate a prostate cancer diagnosis and continue to advance research. Thanks to the critical work of Park and many others, we are poised to achieve Victory Over Cancer®. And when that day comes? “Ah. It will be my dream day. I’ve been waiting a long time for that. I’ll be the happiest person in the world … even if I no longer have my job.”