A study of an experimental treatment for prostate cancer, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows promising results in prolonging life for men with aggressive prostate cancer. The new treatment targets proteins on the prostate cancer cells and attacks them, causing less damage to the surrounding cells. Patients who received this treatment were 60% less likely to see their cancer progress and experienced a prolonged lifespan in comparison to patients who did not.
This new development is critically important. Right now, prostate cancer is the second-most common type of cancer in the United States. According to the National Health Institute, an estimated 250,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 34,000 men will die from it in 2021 alone. These statistics become even more alarming when you look at the evident racial inequities that emerge around education, diagnosis, treatment and medical care.
Black Men See Higher Rates of Prostate Cancer
Black men are diagnosed and die from prostate cancer at much higher rates than their white peers. The American Cancer Society published a report that found that the average annual incidence rate — which is the number of new cases diagnosed each year — is 76% higher for Black men when compared to white men. Additionally, Black men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer compared to white men. Black men have the highest mortality rate for prostate cancer than any other group, and studies show that Black men are more likely to receive substandard care for prostate cancer.
Troubling, detailed information about this gaping disparity is relatively scarce. While there is some evidence to suggest that environmental and biological factors play a role, recent prostate cancer studies have involved very small percentages of Black men, showing a huge need for additional research.
Addressing Racial Disparity in Prostate Cancer Diagnoses and Treatment
Philanthropist Robert F. Smith, a longtime supporter of prostate cancer research, is leading the charge to address the high rates of prostate cancer in Black men. Smith explained that further research on prostate cancer in Black men is “of utmost importance to address health inequity in the U.S.” He continued, “This is why I made a personal commitment to help accelerate research, encourage African American men to participate in the study and subsequent testing, and develop new detection strategies that have the power to transform how we diagnose and treat this disease and help save lives.”
Smith recently donated $1.9 million toward the development of a new test that will identify a person’s likelihood of developing prostate cancer. The test, which utilizes a blood or saliva sample to detect certain genetic markers, could cost less than $90 to administer, making it accessible to a broad range of people.
Dr. Jonathan W. Simons, CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, is hopeful about the new testing project: “This test will democratize access to genetic testing and machine learning algorithms for prostate cancer risk,” Simons said.”It will have a historical impact in public health, racial health justice, and cancer research. We are profoundly grateful to partner with Robert to close the health equity gap and spare more men the hardship of a late-stage prostate cancer diagnosis.”
Dr. Simons also noted, regarding this new test that will bear Smith’s name, “You’ll get the Smith Test by the time you’re 40, so you’re not dying of advanced cancers in your 60s,”
Professor Christopher Haiman will take charge of this initiative. In addition to his work at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Professor Haiman is also the principal investigator in an NIH study to examine the effects of racial discrimination on prostate cancer. With this new project to develop a better prostate cancer test supported by Smith, Professor Haiman aims to significantly reduce the rates of prostate cancer in Black men by 2030.
The Need for Further Prostate Cancer Research
The new test is an important step toward both cancer treatment and racial equity in healthcare. In the next decade, it has the potential to save many lives. Dr. Karen Knudson, CEO of the American Cancer Society, notes that there still is certainly a need for the further development of therapies and life-extending treatments for prostate cancer, as well as other cancers.
Dr. Simons is optimistic that this new initiative backed by Smith will pave the way for further research into prostate cancer in Black men and prostate cancer at large: “The first olive out of the bottle is the hardest,” he said. “But I think by bringing awareness that this is a solvable problem backed by robust research, we will be seeing plenty more support….We didn’t have a tool before. Now, we have a tool.”
Learn more about Robert F. Smith’s work to address racial disparities, including in prostate cancer.