A year from now, four Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering faculty members will have new tools to help understand diseases that disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Those tools will be animal models specifically designed to replicate risk factors prevalent among people with African ancestry or to mimic social determinants of health experienced by Black Americans. The work is made possible by a seed grant program developed by Coulter BME faculty members Edward Botchwey and Johnna Temenoff that has awarded $25,000 to each of the four projects.
The grants are the product of conversations over the last year about ways that Coulter BME — and the broader campus community, for that matter — could harness the commitment to address structural racism that crystallized after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and others in 2020.
“What I personally hope is one of the outcomes of this is that we all in BME, and the broader bioscience community at Georgia Tech, can realize that we have something to contribute to solving the problems of healthcare disparities, and that it is something that's important not just for the Black and underrepresented minority community but it's important for all of us,” said Botchwey, associate professor in the Department.
The projects cover a wide range of health problems, from traumatic brain injury to alopecia and breast cancer to glaucoma. Botchwey said that range demonstrates the different ways researchers in the Department can make a real difference in addressing disparate outcomes.
“Some may be more obvious — say, in glaucoma, where you’re addressing a disease whose prevalence has a known and disparate impact on the African American community,” he said. “Others might be in an area, like traumatic brain injury, that maybe the impact is not statistically as disparate as in some other injuries and diseases, but there may be really important underlying pathological mechanisms in place that have to be understood in order to provide better care and outcomes for African Americans and other underrepresented minorities.”
The seed-grant model is designed to address a gap that faculty members often face as they consider applying for federal research grants: they need preliminary data to show agency reviewers.
“Our faculty members helped us identify that we might not even have the models yet to generate the preliminary data,” said Susan Margulies, Wallace H. Coulter Chair of the Department. “The important piece of this is really about providing seed funds with the goal of using it over the next 12 months to develop these models, verify them, and, ideally, gather a little bit of preliminary data so that our teams can subsequently pursue federal grants.”
Botchwey added: “Part of our motivation, in fact, was that, through the success of this seed grant and the dialogue that we're having here at Georgia Tech, we could really spur extramural funding agencies into action to put a much larger set of resources in place to address the healthcare disparities in the U.S. Through our seed grants, we can really show how those types of investments can pay off.”
The four funded projects propose developing new models for:
Glaucoma – C. Ross Ethier: The incidence of glaucoma — the most common cause of blindness — is four to six times greater for people of African ancestry than in other racial groups, and African Americans develop the disease earlier and have more severe cases than white Americans. This project will capitalize on a recent discovery of a gene associated with glaucoma in those of African ancestry but not in white or Asian populations. Collaborators include Michael Anderson, University of Iowa, and Michael Hauser, Duke University.
Breast Cancer – Karmella Haynes: Triple negative basal-like breast cancer affects pre-menopausal African American women disproportionately, and this highly metastatic cancer is the most prevalent type of breast cancer for obese Black women. The relationship between obesity and cancer remains unclear, particularly because social factors like income and access to healthcare and quality food are often related to obesity and can impact cancer survival. This project will develop a model to untangle those complications. Co-investigator: Curtis Henry, Pediatrics, Emory University.
Traumatic Brain Injury – Michelle LaPlaca: African Americans with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are more likely to have complications, greater disabilities, and less rehabilitation services. They also are more likely to die from the injury than white patients. This project will work to understand how chronic stressors present for some underrepresented groups influence poor outcomes for TBI patients. This kind of lasting, unpredictable, mild stress can lead to disruption of normal physiological processes and exaggerated responses to disease, but it has not been applied to animal models of TBI. Co-investigator: Levi Wood, Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Tech.
Alopecia Areata – Cheng Zhu: Alopecia areata, complete or partial hair loss on parts of the body that normally have hair, is more common in women of African descent that white women over the course of their lives. The disease is one of the most common autoimmune disorders in the world, but it manifests very differently for patients, so it is difficult to study and treat. What’s more, many studies have lacked enough Black participants. This project will work to understand the mechanisms that lead to alopecia areata and open new avenues of research to develop more targeted treatments. Co-investigator: Loren Krueger, Dermatology, Emory University