Miami, Fla. – Minority populations impacted by childhood cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s disease and COVID-19 are the focus of a $19.5 million health disparity study to make sure they receive proper and adequate treatments for illnesses that get top priority in wealthier areas.

According to Florida International University, the school’s Community Based Researched Institute won the grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build the Research Center in Minority Institutions at FIU (FIU-RCMI), focused on world-class, community-partnered health disparities research and training.

FIU was first awarded a $13.1 grant in 2017 which was renewed this month for a five-year, 19.4 million grant, which is the university’s largest NIH award.

According to FIU, a health disparity is a health difference that adversely affects disadvantaged populations, such as a greater likelihood and earlier onset of disease, more risk factors for disease, worse patterns of disease symptoms and premature and/or excessive morbidity and mortality.

Eric F. Wagner, FIU-RCMI’s principal investigator and professor of social work at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, said the new grant is especially timely and important for increasing investigators’ success in obtaining competitive extramural research support. The Stempel College also is part of the study.

"We pride ourselves on providing a variety of training and mentorship opportunities conducive to grant and career success for post-doctoral fellows and early-stage investigators, particularly individuals from groups underrepresented in science," he said.

According to Florida health officials, among 7 million reported cases, COVID-19 took the lives of about 82,875 people in the state and Blacks died at a higher rate than other races from as young as 42 years old to the older populations in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Despite being vaccinated, some got infected with the virus and died.

With the focus on covid especially during the peak of the pandemic, HIV services and treatments took a back seat.

Hospitals filled to capacity with covid patients left people suffering from HIV without beds.

The disruption to HIV treatment services and care substantially impacted people living with the virus that causes AIDS in Florida.

According to the Florida Department of Health, 116,698 people in Florida were diagnosed with HIV in 2019 and 38 percent were Black.

But Florida saw an 8 percent decrease in new diagnoses and a 25 percent rate of HIV-related deaths in the Black community from 2018 to 2019.

During the height of the covid pandemic, however, the HIV-related death rate among Blacks increased.

Diana Sheehan, assistant professor at Stempel College, said she will mine data to understand whether the pandemic has exacerbated HIV disparities among minority populations.

"Our findings will help inform the state of Florida on what community and structural barriers need to be addressed to ensure disparities don’t increase during and after the era of COVID-19," Sheehan said.

The research grant also focuses on reducing cancer disparities in Hispanic and Black children in Miami.

According to the National Cancer Institute, children of all races are diagnosed with cancers in the U.S. every 45 seconds including acute lymphoblastic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, neuroblastoma, and nonHodgkin lymphoma.

However, a Black child who gets acute lymphoblastic leukemia is 43 percent more likely to die than a White kid with the same cancer.

Socioeconomic factors play a big role in survival rates.

Diana Azzam, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Stempel College, said her focus is to identify drug treatments that can help improve the health of childhood cancer patients from minority populations.

Azzam said young patients tend to have limited access to precision medicine clinical trials and treatments that could potentially save their lives.

Azzam’s lab is conducting a study to identify specific biomarkers among minority populations that can be targeted using FDA-approved drugs. “Our data show these populations have different genomics and respond differently to drugs,” Azzam said.

Alzheimer’s disease also presents a disparity in the Black, Hispanic and White communities.

According to the National Institute on Aging, Blacks and Hispanics were 35 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia including Alzheimer’s disease than Whites despite national studies that indicated African Americas are about twice as likely to develop dementia.

However, Blacks with Alzheimer’s disease had more risk factors as well as greater cognitive impairment and symptom severity than Whites and Hispanics.

According to Shanna Burke, an associate professor of social work at Stempel College who’s leading the funded study for dementia including Alzheimer’s, the illness affects mostly the Latinx and Black populations.

Burke, who’s working with her Stempel College colleague Sabrina Sales Martinez, assistant professor of dietetics and nutrition, the two populations are disproportionately impacted by health disparities that are linked to lack of sleep and are 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia.

A person with Alzheimer’s disease lives between three and 11 years after diagnosis but some live on for 20 years, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Martinez said she will examine microbiota, metabolome, sleep, stress and cognition measures to identify early risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease linked to gut health.

Burke and Sales Martinez said that their findings “may lead to interventions targeting risk factors associated with the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

As part of the grant study, FIU-RCMI faculty also work closely with underresourced community organizations to build their research capacity.

"We’ve gone on to secure largescale grants in partnership with them, and they have gone on to secure grants independently, speaking to the mutual benefit of our community-university research partnerships," Wagner said.

The center collaborated with community organizations including Black agencies to disseminate vital health information to underserved communities.

In one partnership, FIU-RCMI won supplemental NIH funding to help address COVID-19 health disparities plaguing minority communities in South Florida.

Last year, together with community partners, the FIU-RCMI invited South Floridians from predominantly Black, Hispanic and Haitian-Creole communities to a series of seven virtual COVID-19 town hall meetings.

The FIU-RCMI provided public health and medical experts to briefly present state-of-the-science community-specific information on COVID-19 prevention and vaccination and addressed community member questions about the pandemic.

"The town halls helped the people who were hesitant and just needed opportunities to hear more information from people they trusted," said Michelle Hospital, leader of the FIURCMI’s Community Engagement Core and an associate professor of biostatistics at Stempel College. "Our community partners played a big role in helping us connect with these individuals."

The FIU-RCMI Community Engagement Core is co-led by Melissa Howard, associate professor of health promotion and disease prevention at Stempel.