University of Hawai’i Cancer Center Leads the Nation in Recruiting Diverse Populations for Cancer Clinical Trials As Polynesian Cancer Rates Alarm

University of Hawai’i Cancer Center Leads the Nation in Recruiting Diverse Populations for Cancer Clinical Trials As Polynesian Cancer Rates Alarm

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) is a national network that supports researchers in their effort to bring cancer clinical trials and care delivery studies to people in their own communities: that is, the research as a care option for the most underserved populations, including minority communities (Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and Native Hawaiians/Polynesians, etc.). Minority groups generally face harsher health conditions due to a confluence of elements and conditions, some of them influenceable and others perhaps not so. Generally, these minority groups participate less in research yet could greatly benefit especially in the cancer realm where in some indications, such as often is the case with pancreatic cancer, research is a treatment option. This is especially the case with Polynesians (Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, etc.) in the state that face far higher cancer rates. But how to get advanced studies to the most challenged communities? That’s where NCORP comes in. Now with April as National Minority Cancer Awareness Month, the time to raise awareness about cancer health is now—and frankly every month thereafter. NCOP is doing its part, and so is University of Hawai’i Cancer Center (UH Cancer Center), one of only 14 sites out of 46 designated as a minority/underserved community site that received funding. The support is needed. Ethnic Polynesians need help—they are at risk for deadly cancers at much higher rates than, say, whites. While UH Cancer Center leads the nation in recruiting minorities per capita for cancer trials, the rate of Polynesian participation undoubtedly could improve to benefit the population. 

The Challenge: Health Equity

Across the nation, about 83% of clinical trial participants are Caucasian, while racial and ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in these types of studies. This is a concern as people of different ages, races and ethnicities may react differently to the various types of cancer treatments. Due to Hawai’i’s racially and ethnically diverse population, the UH Cancer Center and its affiliate members throughout the state have been able to enroll 16,623 patients onto clinical trials since 2016, of which approximately 73% belong to racial and ethnic minority groups. 

UH Cancer Center perhaps leads the nation in enrolling diverse populations to cancer trials. Important as the incidents of health problems tend to be higher in certain minority groups here, especially Polynesian such as Samoans. The facts are concerning. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health reports that, for example, American Samoan women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with, and to die from, cervical cancer as compared to whites. Moreover, American Samoans are apparently eight times more at risk for developing liver cancer while Native Hawai’i, and men face 2.4 greater risk for diagnosis of liver cancer as compared to whites. In Hawai’i, from 2013 to 2015, Native Hawaiians, ethnically Polynesian, faced the highest mortality rate (404.8) for all types of cancer as compared to whites (136.5) in this state.

NCORP Support Helps The Islands 

Jeffrey Berenberg, NCORP principal investigator and UH Cancer Center Professor, went on the record recently: “Minority participation in clinical trials is so important because it helps us to better understand how we can develop cancer treatments that are actually tailored to each individual.”

Rural Pockets of Poverty

Similar to racial and ethnic minority populations, cancer patients in rural areas––including Oʻahu’s neighbor islands––experience worse outcomes in survivorship than their counterparts. These individuals are often diagnosed later than those residing in urban areas, and many need to travel long distances to receive the standard of care. Note that while the islands, except for the Big Island, are not geographically large, travel from the rural areas to towns and cities can represent a cumbersome process. With small winding roads and lots of traffic, it can literally take hours to drive across Maui, for example. The Big Island of Hawai’i has numerous rural often economically struggling communities situated at far distances from any research center and, of course, a trip to Honolulu is not only far but economically beyond the means of sizable amounts of the population.

To ensure these patients have access to the latest treatments, the UH Cancer Center has developed the Tickets for the Cure Program. The program provides funding for cancer patients and their support companions to fly back and forth to Honolulu while participating in clinical trials. Not only are they receiving the highest quality of care, but they are also making important contributions to medical research. The Tickets for the Cure Program, generously funded by the Friends of the UH Cancer Center, is just one of many steps that the center is taking to work towards achieving health equity for all. 

UH Cancer Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The center has made seminal discoveries in the areas of cancer biology, epidemiology, cancer prevention and treatment, and contributed to the advanced health care for thousands of cancer patients to gain access to the most innovative and latest clinical trials at home in Hawai’i. 

About the University of Hawai’i Cancer Center 

The University of Hawai’i Cancer Center, through its various activities, including scientific research and clinical trials, adds more than $54 million to the Oʻahu economy. It is one of only 71 research institutions designated by the National Cancer Institute. An organized research unit within the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, the Center is dedicated to eliminating cancer through research, education, patient care and community outreach with an emphasis on the unique ethnic, cultural, and environmental characteristics of Hawai’i and the Pacific.

Lead Research/Investigator

Jeffrey Berenberg, MD, MACP 

Call to Action: If you reside in the State of Hawai’i and have a loved one diagnosed with cancer, consider checking in with the University of Hawai’i Cancer Center. Need help? Check in with TrialSite, and we’ll help you navigate.