UCLA Health helps lead new $8M initiative to improve colorectal cancer screening rates nationwide

A portrait of Dr. Folasade May
Dr. Folasade May

UCLA Health has been named a key partner and major grant recipient in an innovative national initiative launched by Stand Up To Cancer® (SU2C), Exact Sciences and Providence Saint John’s Health Center, aimed at addressing healthcare disparities in colorectal cancer care and prevention.

 The new Colorectal Cancer Health Equity Dream Team will receive $8 million – $6 million from Exact Sciences and $2 million from Providence Saint John’s Health Center -- for an innovative and comprehensive approach that will bring together leading researchers, patient advocates, community leaders, and clinicians to accomplish several goals, including improving colorectal cancer screening in medically underserved communities in three ‘SU2C Zones’:  Los Angeles, Greater Boston, and Great Plains Tribal Communities in South Dakota. 

 As one of the three “Dream Team” partners, UCLA Health will help lead a three-year robust screening, outreach, and training effort in community health clinics in the Los Angeles area, which has a particularly low screening rate for colorectal cancer, the second most common cause of cancer-related death in American men and women combined. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a dramatic drop in participation in colorectal cancer screening,” said Folasade May, MD, PhD, MPhil, a gastroenterologist, assistant professor of medicine in at David Geffen School of Medicine, and associate director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity in the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Many individuals have delayed essential medical care like cancer screening, especially in racially diverse and low-income communities where cancer outcomes are the direst. Our goal is to make sure that everyone, regardless of background, gets screened for colorectal cancer.”

Dr. May, who is a national Dream Team co-leader, is committed to empowering healthcare providers who serve Los Angeles and other participating communities by providing tools, strategies, and innovative community engagement approaches that will effectively address screening disparities.  She is joined in this effort by co-investigator Beth Glenn, PhD, professor of health policy and management in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, co-director for community outreach and engagement in the Jonsson Comprehensive Center, and associate director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity.

Community partners in the Los Angeles area include several local health centers, including four St. John's Well Child and Family Center health centers: W.M. Keck Foundation Health Center in South Los Angeles, Dominguez Health Center in Compton, Magnolia Place Health Center in East Los Angeles, and S. Mark Taper Foundation Health Center in East Los Angeles. Screening participants will also be sought from faith-based congregations in Baldwin Village and from community health centers in Santa Monica who frequently partner with Providence Saint John's Health Center in community health initiatives.

The national Dream Team’s wide-ranging goals include: establishing and implementing comprehensive at-home stool-based colorectal cancer screening programs at community health centers to increase screening rates to 80% within the SU2C Zones; ensuring patients who have an abnormal stool-based screening test result receive a follow-up colonoscopy; building a biorepository of blood and stool samples for future research to ensure that low income and racial/ethnic minority populations are represented in the development of new screening tests and early detection methods for colorectal cancer; and fostering the careers of a new generation of Black, Latino, and American Indian doctors and researchers who embody the ideals of community engagement, trust-building and disparities research to improve health outcomes for all patients.

“Our Dream Team integrates the traditionally fragmented fields of health disparities research and healthcare. Integrating social science and health equity with clinical translational research will help us achieve our goals and create systems that can be utilized as models long after our grant period is over,” said Dr. May. 

SU2C plans to expand its existing Health Equity Initiative and will also launch the creation of multiple SU2C Zones, which they hope to extend to other communities and cancer types in the future.

Colorectal cancer incidence and deaths are highest in Black Americans, followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives and are lowest in Asians/Pacific Islanders[i]. People with the lowest socioeconomic status are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer than those with the highest socioeconomic status. Additionally, screening rates for Americans 50-75 years old are the lowest in American Indians/Alaska Natives (56%), followed by Asian individuals (58%), Latino/Hispanic individuals (59%), Black individuals (66%) and white individuals (69%).

In addition to Dr. May, the multi-disciplinary team includes Jennifer Haas, MD, MSc, at Massachusetts General Hospital and  Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, MBA, FACS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Los Angeles. Additional team members are from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board, and Fight Colorectal Cancer.