For decades, the Black community has been underrepresented and ignored in the medical field. There are historical precedents, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (conducted by the United States Public Health Service), that have contributed to the fear (among the Black community) of receiving treatment from those meant to protect them. Additionally, much of the medical treatment available has been curated using the medical data of the majority (white) population, which diminishes benefits of personalized medical approaches on the Black community. This is cause for alarm, considering that cancer is a leading cause of death in the Black community. Thus, it is extremely important to ensure that the Black community is represented in the health and medical fields, specifically in genetics. Tuskegee University graduate student researchers Isra Elhussin and Jason White are both doing exceptional work at the Center for Biomedical Research to boost Black representation in the field of Cancer Genetics. Isra and Jason were impressed by Dr. George Washington Carver’s story and were guided by one of his favorite sayings, “It is simply service that measures success.”
Isra Elhussin, who earned her medical degree and practiced medicine as OB/GYN in Sudan, decided to join Tuskegee University in 2017. Isra’s initial interest was to develop early diagnostic and targeted therapeutic strategies for patients with ovarian cancer metastasis. “As a physician, I understand the high value of training in a research setting. Emphasizing prevention and primary care is something that I practice day-to-day in my work and life,” Isra states. She joined the lab of Dr. Bala Karanam in 2017 to work on Ovarian Cancer during her Masters’ training, where she “loved research.” Isra immediately made the link between her research findings and how she could use those findings to help her patients. Given her enthusiasm, Isra decided to continue her training towards a PhD degree in Dr. Yates’ lab, where she began focusing on the role of African ancestry and cancer in Black men.
Isra’s goals are “to build an active cancer research track to strengthen [her] medical field experience with excellent skills and training in biomedical and clinical informatics, landing a medical and translational research career to improve patient outcomes,” Isra says. In her PhD research, she is examining how cancer patients’ genes are linked to their local and global ancestry. Isra states that our genes are largely shaped by our adversity and genetic ancestry. Understanding how genetic ancestry contributes to cancer disparities in Black men of African descent will significantly impact precision medicine. Thus, she aims to include more minority patients, specifically African patients, to largen and diversify the Euro-centric genome database. In addition, her work is geared towards identifying unique genes that could be responsible for the increased incidence and mortality observed among African American men with prostate cancer.
Isra explains that the notion of “one treatment fits all … is not working.” She explains how increasing minority participation in research trials will lead to more data, eventually diversifying and tailoring the treatments for minority cancer patients. She also emphasizes the importance of raising awareness about health situation in the Black community. For many individuals in the Black community, receiving medical treatment can be a frightening experience – where they do not feel they are being heard. Isra hopes to “take [her] research back to the community” and to “build trust” between the Black community, researchers, and the health system. She compares her experience in Sudan to that in the United States and observes that the health situation for Black individuals is almost the same.
Similarly, Jason White is aiming to contribute to cancer research so that the Black community is not only adequately represented in biomedical research but also intentionally included in advances in cancer treatment. He came to Tuskegee University to work with Dr. Clayton Yates and began to work towards his PhD as an opportunity to “move professionally.” Jason emphasizes the overwhelming support he receives from Dr. Yates along with other faculty, the dean and the provost. Jason believes in the sentiment, “If you’re at Tuskegee, you’re meant to be here” and values the work he does for his research. In Dr. Yates’ Lab, Jason focuses on understanding genomic alterations in native African men from Nigeria. Since the majority of African Americans have West African ancestry, Jason sees this as a way to address the health disparity that exists in both the African American and West African communities. Jason states that “black people are underrepresented in biomedical research,” highlighting the need for data that will help curate treatment specifically for Black cancer patients. Regarding his research, he says the data from studying Nigerian men and how it compares with African American men will aid in the representation of Black patients in cancer research and treatment.
Both these accomplished researchers aim to create a space for the Black community to feel safe and to receive medical treatment according to their genetics in a field that has historically excluded them. Both Jason and Isra state that “collaboration is organic” and that their support for one another furthers their drive for research. They also offer advice for students who are interested in researching at a graduate level. Jason emphasizes the required determination for doing graduate research: “getting a PhD is not for the faint of heart, but nothing worth doing is.” Likewise, Isra is a woman of color who says she always “[sees] the women” and serves as an inspiration to other minority women. Beyond her PhD obligations, Isra has her onuses as a mother of two young boys and a wife. At one point she felt like giving up on her research journey in favor of raising two lovely boys, but her love for her research topic has always given her the booster shot to keep going. She encourages women “not to concede,” and urges them to “be confident.”
Isra and Jason both have already begun to contribute significantly to biomedical research as their work is recognized by peer scientists. Isra was awarded an “American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Scholar-in-Training Award 2021” to attend and present a Hot Topics short talk and poster at the AACR-2021 conference. She was also awarded “The Cancer Biology Training Consortium (CABTRAC) travel award 2021″ where she presented her latest ancestry-based analysis. Further, Isra received a mini-grant from Nano-string sequencing company to aid in furthering her research.
More recently, Isra was awarded the “AACR 2022 NEXTGEN STARS.” She will be presenting her data in April 2022 on multi-level genomics analysis of prostate cancer in European, African American, and Native African men in a Major Symposium at the “2022 AACR Annual Meeting in New Orleans.” It is expected that well over 20,000 scientists will attend the conference, with many distinguished scholars attending Isra’s presentation. Isra has helped educate women of color about their health by participating in several hands-on training workshops and giving several keynote talks focusing on Black women’s health. Additionally, she is extensively engaged in a community outreach program to increase awareness of cervical cancer in the Black Belt counties of Alabama. Similarly, she volunteered to be part of the Yates-COVID-19 team working on supplying Macon County community with COVID-19 testing kits and PPE as well as performing COVID-19 PCR tests. In addition to her lab work, this displays her commitment and passion to help and engage people socially and professionally. Isra has multiple publications ranging from COVID-19 to cancer treatment in the African American community. She has also participated in over 10 major conferences where she has been able to contribute significantly to scientific research.
Likewise, Jason has had outstanding scientific contributions. While he is a PhD Fellow in the Integrative Biosciences program and a Lab Manager for the TU RCMI Program, he also has years of research experience under his belt from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the United States Department of Agriculture. Jason has given numerous presentations addressing cancer disparities within the Black community. He has also received multiple AACR awards and co-authored an impressive thirteen articles, culminating in his latest manuscript investigating prostate cancer genomics in advanced-stage, treatment naïve Nigerian men (https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.02.17.22271157v1). In addition to receiving AACR awards, he has also received travel awards for the Science of Global Prostate Cancer Disparities conference, including travel to Nigeria to present to and collaborate with Nigerian clinicians, researchers and community members. While Isra and Jason’s work furthers the TU research community’s mission of addressing health disparities, it extends well beyond the university and contributes to assisting and benefiting marginalized individuals globally. Jason and Isra are high achieving researchers who represent the spirit of Tuskegee University – and our world class scientific research serving historically marginalized communities!