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UNC team receives $500,000 to research ovarian cancer

Associate Professor, Caroline Thompson, poses in front of Gillings School of Public Health on Thursday, Sept. 22. Thompson recently received a grant to study ovarian cancer diagnosis.

A research fellow group at UNC recently received a two-year, $500,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deepen studies focusing on ovarian cancer — particularly among women of color. 

The team of researchers is part of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) at the University and will investigate the factors contributing to the earlier diagnosis of ovarian cancer. 

Alice Ammerman, the director of the HPDP center, said the program is one of 26 that receive support from the CDC. 

The grant is considered one of the CDC’s “special interest projects,” which focus on specific topics that interest researchers, Ammerman said. 

In 1984, the HPDP program at UNC was one of the first three prevention research centers to be funded by the CDC, said Beverly Garcia, the managing director of research and operations at HPDP. This year, a group of researchers received an additional grant to study ovarian cancer. 

Caroline Thompson, the study’s principal investigator, said her research team is centered on investigating the predictors of cancer among different populations. 

“My team is specifically focused on better understanding the patterns of the diagnosis of cancer at the population level,” she said. “We are motivated by trying to understand, 'How do people get diagnosed with cancer?' and 'Could their cancer have been caught earlier?'”

Thompson, a cancer epidemiologist, studies the disease at the population level. In her research, she seeks to identify the causes of disparities in cancer-related healthcare. 

Garcia said the center focuses on the inconsistencies of cancer research within diverse communities.  

“A lot of the work that we do in our center focuses on trying to bridge the gap in health disparities and racial disparities,” she said. “There clearly are disparities in cancer research and in cancer treatments for different populations.” 

Thompson said that the grant will help her research team study what factors predict ovarian cancer in patients. 

“We're going to study North Carolinians who have ovarian cancer and look at their medical record in the year prior to their cancer diagnosis to get a better understanding of what kind of healthcare-related factors might be predictive of identifying a cancer earlier,” she said. 

To Thompson, this is an important topic to study because ovarian cancer typically doesn’t have symptoms — leading to late-stage diagnoses that contribute to lower survival rates.  

Along with furthering investigative opportunities, this research will help equalize cancer treatment among different populations, Garcia said. 

“This type of research is really important to help bridge those gaps and to reduce those disparities, which is one of the goals of our centers to really focus on trying to promote health equity across all populations,” she said.  

Ammerman emphasized the importance of the research being focused on health disparities and how it will impact underrepresented individuals. 

"The fact that it's working specifically to look at Black women who are at higher risk is also really important to try to have a better health outcome," she said. 

Thompson said she is passionate about her work in this field and is hopeful for the grant's impact on the research the group is able to do and understand on a larger scale. 

“We want to look more carefully is that because we have a lot of data now," Thompson said, "the potential for mining that data, electronic health record data, administrative data from insurance companies gives us an opportunity to learn more about what might be going on. And, that's really the future of understanding and solving some of our challenges in healthcare and cancer."


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