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Investigating racial disparities in cancer treatment response

NCI-funded study includes Kaiser Permanente Northern California, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and University of Rochester Wilmot Cancer Institute

A new National Cancer Institute grant will allow the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research (DOR) to work with the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Rochester Wilmot Cancer Institute to investigate racial and ethnic differences in treatment response to a class of cancer therapies called immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Lori Sakoda, PhD

The grant gives DOR research scientist Lori Sakoda, PhD, the opportunity to oversee a multi-institutional study known as ASCEND (Advanced cancer Survivorship after Checkpoint inhibitors: ExamiNing Durable response). Sakoda will investigate the physical and psychological challenges seen in patients with metastatic melanoma or metastatic lung or kidney cancer who have survived a year or more after treatment with an immune checkpoint inhibitor.

“Patients with these stage 4 metastatic cancers are now living longer on these therapies,” said Sakoda. “It is important that we learn more about the challenges they face, and the long-term side effects they may experience, so that we can finds ways to intervene and improve their quality of life.”

Immune checkpoint inhibitors work by making it possible for the immune system to see and attack cancer cells. The first immune checkpoint inhibitor was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011. Since then, these drugs have become widely used to treat more than 20 types of cancer.

Little is known about potential racial or ethnic differences in response to these therapies.

Song Yao, MD, PhD

Two years ago, Roswell Park and the University of Rochester took the first step toward answering this question with a prospective study called DiRECT (Disparities in REsults of immune Checkpoint inhibitor Treatment) which  is investigating whether Black and white cancer patients respond differently to immune checkpoint inhibitors and whether the drugs’ safety and effectiveness can be improved for all populations.

“Immune checkpoint inhibitors can make some very lethal cancers more manageable, so patients survive longer,” said Song Yao, MD, PhD, a professor of oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control and vice chair of clinical research at Roswell Park. “Our hypothesis is that people of African ancestry may particularly benefit from immune checkpoint inhibitors, and if that’s true, these drugs may help reduce cancer health disparities.”

Read more from the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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About the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research

The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research conducts, publishes and disseminates epidemiologic and health services research to improve the health and medical care of Kaiser Permanente members and society at large. It seeks to understand the determinants of illness and well-being, and to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of health care. Currently, DOR’s 600-plus staff is working on more than 450 epidemiological and health services research projects. For more information, visit or follow us @KPDOR.

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