July/August 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 6

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Sociologist-led Teams Receive NIH Grants
to Address Cancer Disparities

Daniel Fowler, ASA Communications Office

Richard Warnecke

Two sociologist-led teams will play key roles in the federal government’s effort to better understand and address disparities associated with cancer and heart disease, the country’s leading causes of death.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced that it has designated 10 sites as Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities. Those centers will receive a total of $100 million in funding over the next five years and will support transdisplinary collaborations among social, behavioral, biological, medical, and public health scientists.

Sociologists Richard Warnecke of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and David R. Williams of Harvard University’s School of Public Health are the principal investigators at the UIC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities and the Harvard University Lung Cancer Disparities Center, respectively.

David Williams

"Sociologists focus on structure, which helps a lot in understanding these problems because disparities can only be understood by looking at populations," said Warnecke, who considers himself a social epidemiologist. "You don’t learn anything about disparities by looking at individuals because what makes a disparity is a difference in a rate, and rates are calculated on a population."

The roughly $10 million NIH awarded to Warnecke’s center will help the UIC team continue its exploration of breast cancer inequities in Chicago. "There’s been a serious problem with breast cancer disparities in Chicago in terms of mortality," Warnecke said.

In the study’s first phase, which the federal government also funded, Warnecke said his team discovered some potential reasons for the inequities, including the fact that white women were benefitting from new advancements in detection to a much greater degree than their non-white counterparts.

The second phase of the study, which the new grant will fund, will explore methods for addressing the disparities, Warnecke said. They include testing a process to help underserved and minority women better navigate the health care system to get mammograms and treatment, indentifying women in a community health clinic as high risk for familial breast cancer and referring them for monitoring to a facility for high-risk patients. Another aspect of this phase-two research will include determining how biological factors disproportionately promote aggressive breast cancer in non-white women.

At Williams’ center, researchers will work to understand and change the determinants of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic status disparities as they pertain to lung cancer. Their efforts will include attempting to identify strategies to prevent people from smoking or to get them to quit if they are already smokers. Harvard’s Lung Cancer Disparities Center will receive $9 million for its work.

"Lung cancer is responsible for more deaths in the United States each year than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined," Williams said.

"Having two sociologists play such prominent roles in addressing cancer disparities reflects the importance of our discipline to the greater scientific community," said Sally T. Hillsman, the ASA Executive Officer.

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