Miami Cancer Institute Grant Will Help Expand Minority Access to Lifesaving Cancer Therapies

A $5 million grant from the Miguel B. Fernandez Family Foundation will support efforts by Miami Cancer Institute to make lifesaving cancer care available to even more people — particularly underserved minority patients who lack access to high quality healthcare, according to leaders at the Institute, which is a part of Baptist Health South Florida.

Michael J. Zinner, M.D., CEO and executive medical director, Miami Cancer Institute

The grant was made to the Baptist Health Foundation and announced in late February, says Michael J. Zinner, M.D., CEO and executive medical director of Miami Cancer Institute. $3 million will support a breast cancer trial that provides access to contemporary radiation therapy treatment to underserved South Florida women with early-stage breast cancer, as well as other breast cancer research.

“This grant marks a milestone for Miami Cancer Institute,” Dr. Zinner says. “In addition to helping advance research into breast cancer as it affects underserved patients, it will elevate the stature of the Institute and allow us to draw luminary physicians and researchers from around the world.” The grant was recognized by the naming of the Fernandez Family Foundation Main Entrance at the Institute, he adds.

Funding Miami Cancer Institute’s first endowed chair in cancer research

The remaining $2 million of the grant will establish the Fernandez Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Cancer Research – the Institute’s first endowed chair – to support the work of Manmeet Ahluwalia, M.D., MBA, Fernandez Family Foundation Endowed Chair In Cancer Research, chief of medical oncology and chief scientific officer and deputy director of Miami Cancer Institute.

Manmeet Ahluwalia, M.D., Fernandez Family Foundation Endowed Chair In Cancer Research, chief of medical oncology and chief scientific officer and deputy director of Miami Cancer Institute

Dr. Ahluwalia’s focus is on developing therapeutic clinical trials for primary brain tumors and brain metastases. Since joining Miami Cancer Institute in 2021, he has also worked to fulfill the Institute’s mission of increasing minority enrollment as principal investigator in clinical trials. With Miami’s incredible diversity comes phenomenal opportunity to further our knowledge and develop new cures.” Miami Cancer Institute, which opened in 2017, cares for an average of 1,200 patients each day.

“It is truly an honor to be recognized with Miami Cancer Institute’s first endowed chair,” says Dr. Ahluwalia. “The grant will further our goal of enrolling more local cancer patients in clinical trials, focusing on the types of cancer that disproportionately affect minority groups, in order to improve outcomes.”

Increasing minority participation in clinical trials

For cancer patients who have complex cancers with limited options or who have exhausted all other treatment options, clinical trials can be a beacon of hope, according to Dr. Ahluwalia. Such studies offer often-desperate patients access to new, potentially lifesaving therapies that are years away from being available to anyone else. Even so, he says, recruiting participants for trials can be a challenge, particularly during the pandemic.

“Racial and ethnic disparities have long been an issue in our country’s healthcare system, and our biggest challenge is recruiting qualified participants for clinical trials,” Dr. Ahluwalia says. “Patients enrolled in U.S. trials are more than ninety percent Caucasian, which means minority populations – African-Americans and Hispanics, in particular – are grossly under-represented.”

As a result, Dr. Ahluwalia continues, patients in those clinical trials don’t always reflect the demographics of the general population. “More importantly, their experiences and outcomes may not extrapolate to the population at large,” he says, adding that a therapy that proves successful for a middle-aged white male may not produce a similar outcome for a young Hispanic woman or an older African-American woman.

In the next few months, Miami Cancer Institute will unveil the Center for Clinical Enrollment of Minorities, which Dr. Ahluwalia says will seek opportunities to address the imbalance in the ethnic make-up of clinical trials for investigational cancer therapies.

Dr. Ahluwalia says that with Miami’s incredible diversity comes an opportunity to further knowledge and develop new cures. “Our primary focus here at Miami Cancer Institute is on research innovation,” he says. “We want to leverage our unique patient population here to boost minority participation in our clinical trials and contribute nationally to such trial participation.”

In addition to the grant from the Fernandez Family Foundation, Miami Cancer Institute is applying for a couple of grants to boost lung cancer screening among minorities, according to Dr. Ahluwalia, who says lung cancer screenings lag far behind those for breast, colorectal and other cancers. “Only six percent of U.S. adults at risk for developing lung cancer are getting screened,” he says. “In the state of Florida, that number is only three percent.”

Executives with Baptist Health are joined by Miguel Fernandez (third from left) and Manmeet Ahluwalia, M.D., (far left), recipient of Miami Cancer Institute’s first endowed chair, the Fernandez Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Cancer Research

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