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UTHealth awarded nearly $5.7 million for cancer research and prevention

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HOUSTON – (Dec. 21, 2015) – The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) has awarded nearly $5.7 million in grants to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. The grants will fund projects that train innovative cancer researchers, increase breast and cervical cancer screening among Hispanics and raise awareness about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Collaborative training of innovative cancer researchers

Roberta Ness, M.D., M.P.H., vice president for innovation at UTHealth and James W. Rockwell Professor of Public Health at UTHealth School of Public Health, and Patricia Dolan Mullen, Dr.P.H., M.L.S., M.P.H., distinguished teaching professor and president's scholar at the School of Public Health, received $4 million to support the Innovation for Cancer Prevention Research (ICPR) fellowship, a unique training program for cancer prevention researchers.

Open to predoctoral and postdoctoral students at the School of Public Health, UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics and The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, the ICPR fellowship uses a variety of tools developed by cognitive scientists, linguists and educators to challenge current research and practice models and teach innovation in research. Trainees must devise and pursue cancer research that does not "baby-step science forward but leaps it into the future," according to Ness.

Since its inception in 2010, seven doctoral students and 12 postdoctoral fellows have completed the fellowship program. The new grant will allow 17 predoctoral students, nine postdoctoral students and 89 undergraduate summer students to participate in the program over the next five years. Including the new funding, CPRIT has awarded a total of $8.3 million to the fellowship program.

David Loose, Ph.D., associate professor at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth; and Trevor Cohen, MBChB, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Biomedical Informatics; are curriculum coordinators for the project.

Breast and cervical cancer screening among Hispanic women

Lara Savas, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the School of Public Health, received a $1.38 million grant to expand a program aimed at increasing breast and cervical screening as well as human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates among Hispanic women.

Hispanic women have among the lowest breast and cervical cancer screening rates compared to other ethnic/racial groups in the United States and Texas, and differences vary by geographic area. Among Hispanic subgroups in the South Gulf Coast of Texas, the proportion of women with unmet breast and cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination needs is high. An estimated 30 percent of Hispanic women in Houston area and 36 percent of Hispanic women in the Rio Grande Valley area have unmet breast cancer screening needs and cervical screening rates are particularly low for Hispanic women in these targeted communities.

Based on evaluation results from the original CPRIT-funded project, women with access to a face-to-face education and community-based navigation program had significantly higher odds of receiving a mammogram and Pap test compared to women who did not have access to the program.

The continuation grant will support inclusion of HPV vaccination to increase cervical cancer prevention and adaptation to the program delivery protocols to include telephone-based education and navigation to reach more women. Savas and her team of researchers will focus on underserved Hispanic women 21 years and older in the Rio Grande Valley and Fort Bend and Harris counties and will continue to evaluate program effectiveness to inform future program dissemination.

Increasing HPV vaccination rates in Houston

Maria E. Fernandez, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the School of Public Health, received an award of $299,778 to continue her work on cervical cancer prevention.

The HPV vaccine provides protection against HPV infection and 90 percent of cervical cancers. If used correctly, the vaccine has the potential to decrease cervical cancer-related health disparities among Hispanics, according to Fernandez.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 33 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 in Houston have received all three doses of the HPV vaccine compared to 56 percent of girls nationwide. The vaccination rate is even lower among boys in Houston, at 15 percent. The national target for vaccination is 80 percent, according to Healthy People 2020.

With CPRIT funding, Fernandez and her team have developed and evaluated a program called Por Nuestros Hijos to educate and motivate Hispanic parents to vaccinate their children. A randomized trial in 30 clinics across Houston showed that the program was effective at increasing HPV vaccination rates. The program includes a tailored multimedia intervention that is web- and mobile-based as well as a print photonovella.

The new CPRIT funding is for dissemination and implementation of existing evidence-based programs and will allow the researchers to expand the program in both clinical and community settings across Texas.

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