UP’s Professor Zodwa Dlamini and Team SAMBAI secure $25M to tackle global cancer Inequities

Professor Zodwa Dlamini of the University of Pretoria.

Professor Zodwa Dlamini of the University of Pretoria.

Published Mar 28, 2024


A global, interdisciplinary team of researchers, including the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Professor Zodwa Dlamini has been selected to receive a Cancer Grand Challenges award of up to $25m over five years to tackle the cancer inequities challenge.

Cancer Grand Challenges is a global funding platform, co-founded by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute in the US, that supports a community of diverse, global teams to come together, think differently and take on some of cancer’s toughest challenges.

"I am excited and humbled by the opportunity to make a real difference in global cancer disparities with Team Sambai (Societal, Ancestry, Molecular and Biological Analyses of Inequalities). This award is not just a milestone, but a testament to our dedication and the urgency of our cause," expressed Dlamini.

Dlamini is a prominent figure in the field of oncology. She is currently serving as the director of the South African Medical Research Council Precision Oncology Research Unit, the founding director of the Pan African Cancer Research Institute and the DSI/NRF-SARChI-Chair-in-Precision-Oncology-and-Cancer-Prevention in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UP. Her involvement in Team Sambai and Cancer Grand Challenges serves as testament to her unwavering commitment to making significant strides in the battle against cancer in Africa and globally.

The funded project is titled Sambai. The team consists of clinicians, advocates and scientists with expertise in computational biology, epidemiology, exposomics, genomics and immunology, across 15 institutions and 4 countries. The project aims to create a comprehensive biobank and data repository to study cancer disparities, especially among populations of African descent. It will examine how societal, environmental, genetic, and immunological factors contribute to cancer outcomes, focusing on prostate, breast, and pancreatic cancers which are more aggressive and have a higher incidence of early onset in Black populations. The project will be conducted across various locations, including UP, with collaborations in the US, Africa, and the UK. The project duration is set from July 1, 2024, to June 30, 2029.

This project is crucial because it addresses the urgent need to understand and mitigate cancer disparities affecting Black populations worldwide. By examining a range of factors from societal influences to genetic predispositions, the project aims to develop more effective, targeted cancer treatments and interventions, outcomes and equity.

Researchers from the University of Pretoria, under the leadership of Dlamini, will contribute significantly to the Sambai project. They will bring expertise in genomics, cancer disparities research, and methods to quantify environmental exposures and analyse epigenetic responses. The University of Pretoria will play a critical role in developing the project's biobank, conducting exposomic profiling, creating an exposome panel for partners across Africa, and establishing a standard exposome reference database. Their contribution will help build research capacity in under-resourced settings and ensure equitable access to data and treatments derived from the project's findings.

The project will define interactions of environmental exposures, social determinants, and genetic ancestry that determine immunological landscapes of primary tumors and/or circulating immunological profiles in patients of African descent.

“Our project will contribute a data repository with 100K features/patient, for 40 000 patients. The impact on this population includes a novel trial design, in collaboration with our patient advocacy partners, to ensure that the specific genomic and immunological features we uncover become part of targeted precision oncology theragnostic options,” said Dlamini in her application for funding.

Dlamini is leading efforts to establish a Comprehensive Exposome Reference for Analyzing Cancer Health Disparities in Africa within the Sambai Site. This initiative is aligned with the Pan African Cancer Research Institute’s vision of advancing precision oncology and reducing health inequalities across the continent.

Under her guidance, this African/Pan African Cancer Research Institute Site has assembled a diverse team of experts, including oncologists, pathologists, surgeons, cancer biologists, chemists, and legal professionals. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the Pan African Cancer Research Institute aims to unlock new insights into cancer disparities and improve outcomes for underserved communities.

"Our participation in Team Sambai as the African Site in Implementing Exposomics marks a significant step forward in cancer research and healthcare delivery in Africa,” expressed Dlamini. “With a focus on inclusivity and innovation, the Pan African Cancer Research Institute site is poised to make a lasting impact on cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment across the continent.”

Inequities in cancer prevention, screening, and treatment lead to disparities in cancer incidence and mortality and are a major public health concern. Team Sambai aims to build an unprecedented resource, which will comprise a comprehensive measurement of social, environmental, genetic and biological factors that can be used to help define the causes of disparate outcomes in the selected populations. The team will focus on prostate, breast and pancreatic cancers spanning diverse cohorts of African descent from regions of Africa, the UK and the US.

“Together with our network of visionary partners and research leaders, Cancer Grand Challenges unites the world's brightest minds across boundaries and disciplines and aims to overcome cancer’s toughest problems,” said Dr David Scott, director of Cancer Grand Challenges.

“With this investment, our largest to date, we continue to grow our global research community, and fund new teams that have the potential to surface discoveries that could positively impact cancer outcomes.”

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