SPNs Conference Outlines Program's Successes
Nearly 5 years ago, NCI developed an innovative approach to addressing cancer health disparities when it initiated the Special Populations Networks (SPNs). The purpose of SPNs was to build an infrastructure for promoting cancer awareness within minority and medically underserved communities. If the concept worked well, it would lead to more research and cancer control activities targeting special populations.
Today, 18 SPNs focus on cancer in Asian American, Hispanic, African American, American Samoan, Native Hawaiian, Appalachian, American Indian, and Alaska Native communities. Seventeen of the 18 networks are affiliated with a university, hospital, or NCI-sponsored cancer center. The exception, Papa Ola Lokahi, is owned and operated by the Hawaiian community. They have helped bring a fresh approach to disparities research by recommending research directions and posing research questions. Through population studies, SPNs have helped confirm the extent of disparities in minority and underserved populations.
SPNs have developed and enhanced many community-based partnerships by opening lines of communications and bringing together universities, cancer centers, health professionals' organizations, and communities on cancer disparities. Most importantly, SPNs have led to an increase in cancer screening and access to and participation in clinical trials.
More than 300 investigators and community-based clinicians from around the United States and 6 jurisdictions that make up the U.S.- associated Pacific attended the Cancer Health Disparities Summit 2004 from July 18-20 in Washington, D.C. They exchanged data, shared ideas, and reported on their progress. The Cancer Information Service, a partner in the SPNs project, also participated in the conference and provided an overview of its outreach and education work in support of SPNs, which included public education campaigns tailored to specific communities.
This meeting comes at a critical time in NCI's ongoing efforts to address cancer health disparities. The SPNs program will end in early 2005 and be replaced by the Community Networks Program to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities. This new 5-year program will build on the work of SPNs by providing $24 million per year, starting in fiscal year 2005 to fund 18 to 22 grants per year. The program will focus on improving cancer interventions in underserved communities, redirecting attention from awareness of disparities to actually eliminating disparities. The new program will expand capacity to support community-based education, research, and training programs by developing community-based participatory and training programs and promoting longevity for programs that reduce cancer disparities.
A Town Hall session on the first day of the meeting featured Dr. Harold Freeman, director of NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities and Dr. Mark Clanton, NCI deputy director for Cancer Care Delivery Systems.
"It's wonderful now that we have researchers from these communities," Dr. Freeman told conference participants as he traced the history of NCI's interest in cancer health disparities to a 1973 paper by Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr. and Dr. U.K. Henschke that "put this issue on the map" by calling attention to the striking difference in cancer mortality in African Americans. Dr. Leffall currently serves on the President's Cancer Panel.
Dr. Clanton told summit participants that addressing cancer disparities is an integral part of NCI's strategic priorities. "The strategic emphasis that we have in this area makes your work vitally important," said Dr. Clanton. He also pointed out that the need to address disparities remains a high priority on NCI's agenda.
SPN investigators have published more than 130 journal articles based on research from the SPNs. It is notable that the SPNs have acquired an additional $20 million beyond NCI grants for the purpose of funding cancer awareness, research, and training programs. The SPNs also have identified and trained a number of minority researchers who are now working on SPN projects.