Scientists come together in Jamaica to launch the H3ECaribbean Initiative

One thing scientists are very good at is collaborating across borders. Caribbean scientists are no exception. So tomorrow (Thursday, April 8, 2021) a small gathering will take place in the beautiful setting of Norse Hill, Portland in Jamaica to launch a very significant project that will ensure the inclusion of Caribbean people in health research, among other goals. This is made possible through an amazing partnership between the University of the West Indies, the Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute (JACCRI) and the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities. A large audience of dozens of scientists in several countries will join this small group via Zoom.

Dr. Dingle Spence in the garden at the Hope Institute Hospital in Kingston. (My photo)

If you recall, I visited Dr. Spence at the Hope Institute Hospital back in January, 2017 following the launch of JACCRI itself at a conference on UWI’s Mona campus in Kingston on the topic: Emerging Issues in Cancer Care and Research: Translational Challenges in the Jamaican Context, which I also attended.

Talking to Dr. Spence, I learned a great deal about the importance of palliative care; and also realized that people of African descent were not included in the research into the genetics of cancer. Also, training within the region is absolutely critical.

This is very much scientific research with a social justice twist. Inclusion is everything.

Dr. Alexandra Shields, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities.

I recently had the great pleasure of talking to Dr. Alexandra Shields of Harvard, Dr. Dingle Spence at JACCRI and her two amazing research assistants; and I learned a whole lot more about this remarkable, ground-breaking project. In a subsequent post, I will fill you in on the details, but meanwhile…on to the launch!

Here is the joint press release:

Scientists across the Caribbean and the World Launch the H3ECaribbean Initiative 

Genomics research takes center stage in Jamaica as new initiative targets lack of Caribbean representation in discovery data sets used to develop improved treatments for cancer and other chronic conditions 

APRIL 7, 2021 — The Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute (JACCRI), the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities, and The University of the West Indies West Indies (UWI) are proud to publicly launch the H3ECaribbean (Human Heredity, Environment, and Health in the Caribbean) initiative on April 8, 2021 from Jamaica and via Zoom, along with leading genomics researchers, clinicians, and social scientists from six different countries. 

Selected by the Committee of Deans of The UWI’s Faculty of Medical Sciences (FMS) as their signature initiative to celebrate “One UWI” across all medical school campuses, H3ECaribbean aims to build the health research infrastructure needed to investigate genomic, environmental, and social influences on the etiology of chronic diseases in the region and ensure inclusion of persons from the Caribbean in cutting-edge global health research. 

Deans Tomlin Paul (UWI Faculty of Medical Sciences [FMS], Mona), Peter Adams (UWI FMS, Cave Hill, Barbados) and Terence Seemungal (UWI FMS, St. Augustine, Trinidad), and Director of The UWI’s School of Clinical Medicine and Research, Bahamas, Dr. Robin Roberts are all members of the H3ECaribbean Steering Committee. 

Modeled after the successful H3Africa (Human Heredity and Health in Africa) program envisioned by Dr. Charles Rotimi, Director of the NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health, H3ECaribbean will advocate for a substantial investment in the health research infrastructure needed to participate in international genomics studies; e.g., biobanks, electronic health records, longitudinal epidemiological data, and cancer registries. Dr. Rotimi and Dr. Ambroise Wonkum, a principal investigator with H3Africa from South Africa, will share the challenges they experienced and their strategies for overcoming them.  

The overall initiative is being led by Dr. Tomlin Paul, Dean of the UWI FMS, Mona, and Dr. Alexandra Shields, Hon. Professor of Medicine at UWI, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities. Dr. Shields is also one of the three women who founded the Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute (JACCRI), which initiated the H3ECaribbean initiative. 

“Through H3ECaribbean, we will create incredible global research opportunities for our faculty, students, and trainees throughout the region,” commented Dr. Tomlin Paul, Dean, FMS, UWI, Mona, Jamaica, “matched by the kind of training and faculty development that will allow Caribbean investigators to participate in global genomics and health research as equal partners with our colleagues in the US and Europe.” 

“With respect to cancer, for example, people across the small island nations of the Caribbean may have unique environmental influences that lead them to have different mutations driving the growth of cancers in the Caribbean than the white middle-class Americans who currently comprise the vast majority of the discovery data sets used to develop novel therapies,” said Alexandra E. Shields, PhD, Director, Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities and co-founder of JACCRI. Inclusion in the discovery data sets used to develop novel therapies is ultimately about social justice. We need to ensure that persons in the Caribbean benefit equitably from advances in global genomics and global genomics research.” 

Cancer now accounts for more than 20% of all deaths in the Caribbean and this rate is increasing. According to a recent paper review in Lancet Oncology by researchers from the Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute (JACCRI), cancer cases are expected to rise by nearly 70% over the next ten years. 

Dr. Spence talks to a patient at the Hope Institute Hospital.

About Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute 

The Jamaica Cancer Care and Research Institute (JACCRI) is an NGO committed to reducing the burden of cancer and improving treatment outcomes in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. Headquartered at The University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, JACCRI is uniquely positioned to lead the regional effort underway to develop the necessary research infrastructure that would allow people from the Caribbean to be included in international studies developing novel treatments for disease and cancer. JACCRI was co-founded in 2017 by Dr. Dingle Spence (a leading clinical oncologist and palliative care physician who runs The Hope Institute Hospital, Jamaica’s only specialist oncology hospital), Dr. Jennifer Alexander (pathologist, and founder of Surgipath Diagnostics), and Dr. Alexandra E. Shields (Director, Havard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities at Mass. General Hospital; Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Medical Sciences, UWI, Kingston, Jamaica; and Associate Member of the Broad Institute). 

Group photo at the launch of JACCRI at the University of the West Indies in December, 2016.

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