Expanded biorepository project aims to improve cancer care in underserved communities

January 04, 2022
Dr. Janae Sweeney stands in the biorepository at South Carolina State University
Dr. Janae Sweeney stands inside the biorepository at South Carolina State University. Photo by Josh Birch

Janae Sweeney, Ph.D., surprises herself every day.

She never thought she would be a cancer researcher, let alone become director of South Carolina State University’s (SCSU) biorepository in collaboration with MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. But life as she knew it changed 10 years ago when her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“As soon as my mom was diagnosed with cancer, cancer was what I was all about,” Sweeney said. “I wanted to understand it. I wanted to go to school to become an oncologist because research didn’t interest me at that time. But once I actually got in a lab, I realized how much I liked the unknown of research and discovering new things every day.”

Sweeney took that passion for cancer research and ran with it – first becoming an assistant professor of biology at SCSU and next taking on her current role as director of SCSU’s biorepository.

Dr. Janae Sweeney outside of Leroy Davis, Sr. Hall, which houses the biorepository at South Carolina State University 
Dr. Janae Sweeney outside of Leroy Davis, Sr. Hall, which houses the biorepository at South Carolina State University. Photo by Josh Birch

The biorepository, which is funded through a U54 Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity award from the National Cancer Institute, is a joint effort between SCSU and Hollings that began in 2017 with the goal of developing research aimed at reducing cancer disparities in South Carolina. Marvella E. Ford, Ph.D., and Judith D. Salley, Ph.D., lead the NCI U54 program, which is titled “South Carolina Cancer Disparities Research Center (SC CADRE).”

Sweeney said the biorepository helps people in her own community while also helping her to further her research interests. “I would love to find different therapeutical strategies that don’t just involve chemotherapy that could benefit patients without all of the negative side effects.”

Initially, researchers in the biorepository were studying breast and prostate cancer, but they now plan to expand their efforts to include colorectal cancer. Researchers with the biorepository aim to reach racially and ethnically diverse patients from medically underserved communities. The goal is to use the samples collected through the biorepository to advance the cancer research led by MUSC and SCSU and, ultimately, to develop new and improved cancer therapies to improve overall patient care.

“It’s important for researchers to have access to these tissue samples to figure out why Black men and women tend to have worse overall cancer outcomes than whites. This also gets us out into medically underserved communities to figure out what we can do to circumvent and prevent later-stage cancer diagnoses,” Sweeney said. “A lot of times Black men and women have worse outcomes because they lack access to care, education and screenings. We need to change that.”

Steven Carroll, M.D., Ph.D., who serves as director of both the Hollings Cancer Center Biorepository and Tissue Analysis Shared Resource and the SC CADRE Biorepository Shared Resource, said expanding cancer research and improving cancer care is a win-win. As the only NCI-designated cancer center in South Carolina, Carroll said Hollings has a responsibility to everyone.

“The medical community serves all the people of South Carolina, at least in theory. In practice, that hasn’t always been the case. At Hollings, we are trying to correct that and make sure minorities and underserved communities are included in cancer research and clinical trials,” he said.

Hollings first launched its tissue bank in 2004. Carroll said they wanted to focus on cancers that were common and that disproportionately affected minorities and underserved communities. The best way to do that was to bring cancer care and research directly to the communities affected by health disparities.

Steven Carroll, M.D., Ph.D. 
Dr. Steven Carroll

Carroll said the newly acquired MUSC regional hospitals across the state will help them to reach new patients who live in rural and medically underserved communities. Researchers plan to work with MUSC Health Florence Medical Center to collect samples from patients with certain types of cancer to expand what is possible in the biorepository research.

“We’ve hired someone who goes to talk to cancer patients in our regional hospitals who are about to undergo surgery and explain to them the importance of this research,” Carroll said. “Then we ask if they’d be willing to donate a portion of their tumor tissue to go into this biorepository where it can be used for future research to improve cancer care.”

By collecting samples from medically underserved communities, Carroll said researchers hope to understand more fully the biology of cancer in these patients. The biorepository streamlines the process to get samples to researchers who are interested in reducing health disparities and improving cancer outcomes.

“To make this project work, we have to show these patients that there will be benefits coming back to them,” he said. “A big part of that is using these samples to lead to clinical trials that specifically impact these medically underserved communities to save more lives and reduce the burden of cancer.”

Ford, associate director of Population Science and Cancer Disparities at Hollings, said the NCI U54 SC CADRE award also encourages more people of color to enter the cancer research field. “SCSU investigators now have access to a broad array of samples from a diverse population,” Ford explained. “This access will provide SCSU investigators with samples for analysis to establish primary data for their own grant proposals, which will allow them to apply for peer-reviewed funding to become independent investigators in the future.”

Sweeney said having more diversity behind the science would aid in regaining trust among some in the Black community. “I think these patients will be more trusting if they see researchers and doctors who look like them and realize it isn’t them against the world.”

Carroll said he also hopes the biorepository project will create a more inclusive environment in cancer research. “We want to focus on nurturing and training the next generation of cancer researchers but, specifically, those cancer researchers interested in studying these underserved populations. We feel this partnership will help to do that, and that is something everyone should be excited about.”