National Minority Health Month

National Minority Health Month logo

By Angela Hopp

Each April, the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and its partners observe National Minority Health Month. The theme this year is “Active & Healthy.”

The HHS website explains the rationale for the 2019 theme this way: “Physical activity promotes health and reduces the risk of chronic diseases and other conditions that are more common or severe among racial and ethnic minority groups.”

The statement as a whole is true, but it’s that last part that I want to spend some time on: “more common or severe among racial and ethnic minority groups.”

Some conditions certainly do disproportionately affect minority populations. For example, African American men are far more likely to develop prostate cancer and die from it than white men.

Some of that has to do with biology. Some of it has to do with society.

We’re in the business of biology here, but it’d be negligent to not bring up what the lived experience does to the human body. It is well documented that racism, discrimination and prejudice — both the invisible structural kinds and the overt daily kinds — take their toll on the mental and physical health of people in marginalized groups.

Furthermore, genocide, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, discriminatory lending practices and other injustices that persist today have prevented Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color from amassing the generational wealth that white people, as a population, can leverage for better nutrition and healthcare.

Federal funders of research know all of this. In fact, some of the money in the Cancer Moonshot pot is going to a study called “Research on Prostate Cancer in Men of African Ancestry: Defining the Roles of Genetics, Tumor Markers, and Social Stress.”

So, with that in mind, let’s return to this year’s theme: active and healthy.

If someone at work told you he’d like to lose some weight, you might recommend starting an exercise regimen by taking a daily walk outside. On the surface, that sounds like pretty good advice. It doesn’t take an expensive gym membership to get moving, after all. But if your colleague has to worry about being racially profiled, hassled or worse, that advice probably sounds privileged. Similarly, we always hear that we should eat a balanced diet of fresh, healthful foods, but that’s pretty hard to do if you live in a food desert.

Slogan aside, being active and healthy isn’t as simple as it sounds.

ASBMB Today science writer John Arnst last year reported on collaborations across the nation to get a grasp on the tangled roots of health disparities. The researchers Arnst talked to emphasize the need for institutions to train young researchers to factor in social impacts, such as racism, poverty and unequal access to healthcare, as they do their work. They also advocate for scientists to engage minority community leaders because the impacts of historical abuses by scientists on marginalized groups continue to be felt. Read his story here. 

In addition, at the society’s annual meeting in Orlando earlier this month, the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee sponsored a session on inequities in precision medicine. I recommend that you take a look at the work being done by the speakers on the lack of minority representation in clinical databases, pharmacogenomics, ancestry and asthma, and much more.

Science writer Jonathan Griffin has put together below a collection of new research on diseases and conditions that disproportionately affect minority populations. While the work wasn’t necessarily done with those disparities in mind, Griffin skillfully presents them within that context. 


Sea sponges and the prevention of asthma

Asthma affects millions of Americans, with considerable impacts on Latino American children, who are two times more likely to die from asthma than non-Hispanic whites. 

The disease is primarily driven by the release of inflammatory molecules from T-helper 2 cells. Researchers from Wuhan University School of Health Sciences in China found that the effects of these cells can be curbed by treating mice with the marine sponge derivative α-Galacto-sylceramide, which expanded T regulatory cells. Their work, reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, demonstrates that generating T regulatory cells could be a promising strategy for allergic asthma prevention. 

How cells fight back during Hep C infection

Hepatitis C virus is a serious health concern that can lead to chronic liver disease and liver cancer, is particularly problematic for African Americans and American Indians/Alaskan Natives, who were both more likely to die from the virus in 2016 compared to non-Hispanic whites. 

In this study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, researchers uncovered that in hepatitis C-infected liver cells, the virus downregulates the tumor suppressor interferon regulatory factor 5, or IRF5. By comparing cells with and without IRF5, the authors figured out that the protein reduces viral replication and induces death of infected cells, highlighting the role of IRF5 as a hepatitis C suppressor.

Fatty acid derivatives slow an aggressive cancer

Triple-negative breast cancer, or TNBC, is an aggressive type of cancer which composes about 15% to 20% of all breast cancers and is most common in African American women.

In an effort to develop new therapeutic strategies, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington exposed TNBC cells and tumors to the electrophilic fatty acid derivative nitro-oleic acid. In their experiments reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, they saw that in cells nitro-oleic acid reduced TNBC growth and mobility, and in mice TNBC tumor growth was also slowed. The authors found that the acid works by disrupting the pro-inflammatory molecule NF-κB.  

Throwing a wrench into HIV replication

Minorities account for a significant portion HIV diagnoses in the United States, with almost half occurring in African American populations. Latino Americans also are disproportionately affected, accounting for just under a quarter of new diagnoses in 2016.

In a study from the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Chinese researchers at Soochow University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences revealed that the RNA/DNA binding protein SAFB1 prevents HIV-1 reactivation. The protein binds to a specific region of HIV DNA and then physically blocks other proteins from transcribing the virus. The authors suggest that the region of DNA represents a new target to maintain HIV latency in infected cells. 

Breaking down tuberculosis drug resistance

Infections by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis are the leading cause of death due to infectious agents worldwide, and in the United States 87% of these cases occur in racial and ethnic minorities.

Since the drug Isoniazid was employed to fight tuberculosis, strains of bacteria have emerged that are becoming increasingly resistant to the drug. To improve our understanding of how the bacteria are adapting to Isoniazid, researchers from Colorado State University analyzed how protein expression is altered in strains after they become drug resistant. The results, published in the journal Molecular & Cellular Proteomics, reveal several proteins with altered expression, including proteins involved in lipid synthesis which could be targets in future tuberculosis treatments.

How fiber shuts down cancer growth

Although the threat of colorectal cancer can be reduced by early screening and treatment, it remains the second most deadly cancer in the United States, weighing most heavily on minority populations with minimal access to adequate healthcare services.

Bacteria in the gut ferment fiber to produce short fatty acid chains. One of these bacterial products, butyrate, suppresses colorectal cancer growth, but it has not been clear to researchers precisely how. To uncover new cancer targets, researchers at China Pharmaceutical University and the Beijing Institute of Radiation Medicine evaluated how levels of metabolites in colorectal cancer cells are affected by butyrate treatment. In their study published in the journal Molecular & Cellular Proteomics, the authors show that by binding to the protein PKM2, butyrate reprograms colorectal cancer metabolism and leads to cell proliferation arrest. 

The Biggest Loser: Mouse Edition

Obesity impacts the health of approximately 30% of the United States population and increases risk for conditions including diabetes, fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease. Of the affected Americans, minority populations such as African Americans and Latino Americans face a higher likelihood of becoming obese compared to non-Hispanic whites.

To better manage obesity in patients, proteins that regulate the fate of lipid droplets in cells could be targeted. In a study in the Journal of Lipid Research, researchers demonstrated that partially silencing fat-specific protein 27, which promotes fat storage inside cells, in mouse models of obesity elicited drastic decreases in visceral fat.