MUSC researcher joins elite group

October 16, 2017
Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert
Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert is the Distinguished AT&T Endowed Chair in Cancer Equity at MUSC. Photo by Helen Adams

Chanita A. Hughes-Halbert, Ph.D., has been elected into the National Academy of Medicine, the first woman and first African-American from South Carolina to attain that distinction.

“I just see it as a real honor because I think it places MUSC as an institution among some of the most elite academic centers in the country,” said Hughes-Halbert, who holds the AT&T distinguished endowed chair in cancer equity. “And one of the things I’m most proud of since coming here is the work that’s being done in minority health and health disparities and cancer prevention and control. Several investigators, not just me, are really bringing national attention to MUSC.”

Membership in the NAM is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements and commitment to service. 

NAM President Victor Dzau, M.D., in his letter of invitation, wrote: “Your election reflects the high esteem in which your peers and colleagues regard you. As an NAM member, you are now part of a group of truly distinguished individuals who have made important contributions to health, medicine and science.” 

The National Academy of Medicine, established in 1970 under the name Institute of Medicine, is an independent organization of eminent professionals from diverse fields including health and medicine; the natural, social, and behavioral sciences; and beyond. Through its domestic and global initiatives, the NAM works to address critical issues in health, medicine, and related policy and inspire positive action across sectors.

“My first introduction to the National Academy of Medicine happened several years ago when I was on one of their committees,” she said. “This committee was charged with examining issues related to the breast cancer and the environment. It was fascinating to be part of that committee because you had an opportunity to interact with other leaders in the field to think in depth about key issues in priority areas and then develop recommendations that ultimately influence the policies that are made for health and health care.”

Being part of the National Academy of Medicine provides an opportunity for an MUSC faculty member to contribute to that policy-making process and identify other priorities and initiatives, she said.

Hughes-Halbert will bring to NAM the same priorities she brings to MUSC: a focus on minority health and health disparities issues, especially involving cancer prevention and control. This is personal for her: She lost her mother to breast cancer in 1984 and recently lost an aunt to lung cancer.

“Many individuals lack basic information about the resources that are available in academic medical centers for their health and well-being,”  she said, “and many patients have to struggle with the challenges associated with accessing care in these settings.  We still need to work on helping patients to navigate the health care system.” 

It's that sensitivity and dedication that brings praise from colleagues, such as Gustavo W. Leone, Ph.D., director of MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center. "Dr. Hughes-Halbert is an extraordinary scientist who has dedicated her career at MUSC and the Hollings Cancer Center to addressing health disparities and minority health issues, particularly in South Carolina. This achievement will continue to elevate the standard of excellence to which our cancer center strives toward, and we look forward to her continued efforts as a pioneer in the fields of health, medicine, and science in the coming years.”

Since coming to MUSC in 2012, Hughes-Halbert has established a collaborative center in precision medicine and minority men’s health to address genetic, lifestyle and environmental issues related to minority health and cancer health disparities.

Hughes-Halbert said there's much work to be done. “I’m really excited about the work in our center, which is designed to understand the stress process and stress reactivity among minority men, and how that influences their biology with respect to prostate cancer, and how that influences their response to treatment for prostate cancer,” she said. “We want to get a better characterization of their social factors and how that links to and has implications for their long-term survivorship outcomes.”

Her interest in minority men’s health also touches Hughes-Halbert personally. “I’ll tell you the reason I’m interested in minority men is because I’m the mother of two young boys I’m raising to be men. I want them to be healthy.”

In addition to her holding an endowed chair, Hughes-Halbert is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate dean for assessment, evaluation and quality improvement in the College of Medicine.

She started her academic career in 1997 after earning her doctorate in personality psychology from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and completing pre- and postdoctoral training in cancer prevention and control at the Georgetown University Medical Center. As a research assistant at Georgetown, she recognized there was very little participation in research studies or clinical trials by African–Americans.

Hughes–Halbert was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Board of Scientific Advisors.