‘I Was Overwhelmed But Committed in That Moment’

Posted on: September 13, 2017 Topics: In Conversation With

Tracy M. Layne (SPH’07) Alumna; Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Breakfast: “This morning I had one of my favorite breakfasts: it’s oatmeal, and then I mash up one banana, and sprinkle on cinnamon.”

Extracurricular: “I love going back home to New York [from Maryland] and spending time with friends and family. I’m from a large West Indian family and grew up in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood, and so I miss the mix and mingling of the city and culture—seeing people shopping, going to church, the kids running around. I miss that energy.”

You are one of the inaugural recipients of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD)’s William G. Coleman Jr., PhD, Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Innovation Award.

I’m extremely honored to receive this award. Dr. Coleman was the first permanent African American scientific director in the history of the Intramural Research Program at the NIH. He was not only concerned with health disparities research, but also with mentoring students in the field. I’m humbled by the opportunity to be one of the first to receive the award, and I hope that this project and my subsequent work live up to his legacy.

What is the disparity at the center of your research at the National Cancer Institute?

Unfortunately, black men have the distinction in this country of having a higher prostate cancer incidence rate compared than other racial/ethnic groups. For instance, compared to white men, black men have about 1.7 times the risk of developing the disease, and more than two-fold the risk of dying from it.

This is a longstanding disparity. However, most of the research to date has really been about documenting this disparity, and less so looking at why it persists.

How does your current project look for the “why”?

This project is looking at the metabolomic profile of prostate cancer risk in black men, using blood samples collected from black men without disease who participated in two large-scale studies. Both studies followed the men over time, and collected information on whether they developed prostate cancer. We are going to run an analysis called metabolomics to identify potential metabolite markers in the blood that are associated with prostate cancer risk in this population.

The study is one of the first of its kind to look at this population in this way. Prior research examining what is driving the black-white disparity in prostate cancer risk has largely involved retrospective studies, where they look at men who have already developed the disease, and then try to go back in time to understand what may have contributed to the difference in risk. The thing about our current study that I’m passionate about is looking prospectively—looking at individuals before they develop the disease and following them over time to better identify risk factors that may contribute to the disparity, so there are fewer concerns about whether the potential risk factor came before the disease.

For prostate cancer in general, the only well-established risk factors are older age, family history, and African ancestry. Using the blood samples collected years before these men developed disease, our objective is to identify characteristics that will reveal themselves before men are clinically diagnosed with prostate cancer. We hope to identify metabolite markers that could be potential targets in a clinical setting for screening, to assess performance on treatments, or as indicators of progression of disease. Essentially, we’re hoping that these metabolites will be able to tell us something actionable.

What led you to research prostate cancer disparity?

One of the reasons I’m excited about talking to you is because a lot of my motivation came from my time at SPH.

I initially learned about disparities, and became passionate and committed to studying them, while taking an introductory course during the first semester of my MPH. I’ll never forget sitting in the classroom, learning about racial/ethnic disparities in risk for multiple chronic diseases. I was overwhelmed but committed in that moment.

I was also influenced by my time working at comprehensive cancer centers. During my undergrad degree, and for two years afterwards, I worked at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where I first learned about public health and epidemiology and realized, “This is perfect for me.” While working on my MPH as a part-time student, I also worked full-time at Dana Farber Cancer Institute as a clinical trial research coordinator.

Then another “aha” moment came while taking a cancer epidemiology course here at SPH co-taught by Drs. Elizabeth Hatch [professor of epidemiology] and Marianne Prout [professor emerita of epidemiology]. I had to identify a final project topic, and I stumbled across associations between vitamin D and prostate cancer. I thought it was interesting that in addition to being at higher risk for prostate cancer, black men were also more likely to experience low vitamin D status. I found what remains one of my primary research interests.

Do you see the disparity in prostate cancer as more related to genetic differences across racial/ethnic groups, or is structural inequity at play?

If I had to place this disparity somewhere on that spectrum, it would be hard because no one area explains all the racial difference in prostate cancer risk. As I suspect is the case with many racial/ethnic health disparities, the interplay of multiple interrelated factors likely help to sustain black–white differences in prostate cancer risk and mortality. That’s why I’m interested in working on transdisciplinary teams to better understand these factors and provide the biological, environmental, and historical context to address health disparities.

Michelle Samuels

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