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To Reduce Cancer Disparities, Walk the Talk, Like SPEECH

Temple-Led NCI-Funded Partnership Holds Fifth Annual Showcase

News May 25, 2023


SPEECH 2023 attendees in a group photo

“SPEECH amplifies fundamental purposes at Temple’s core: Inclusive, accessible excellence in research, education, workforce development, and community engagement,” said JoAnne Epps, Acting Temple University President, during last week’s exciting gathering at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.

SPEECH --  the Synergistic Partnership for Enhancing Equity in Cancer Health -- is a large regional comprehensive cancer health disparities research partnership that is led by the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and shared with Fox Chase Cancer Center and Hunter College (New York City). May 17 and 18 marked its fifth annual gathering.

“We launched our partnership in 2018 with a  five-year, $13.5 million National Cancer Institute U54 grant, the first such grant ever awarded in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and one of only 16 in the United States,” says Grace X. Ma, PhD, the Principal Investigator, who serves as Associate Dean for Health Disparities, Founding Director of the Center for Asian Health, and Laura H. Carnell Professor in Urban Health and Population Science at the medical school.

SPEECH’s ultimate aim is to reduce the disproportionate cancer burden and cancer disparities affecting underserved Black/African American, Asian American, and Hispanic-American communities in the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York City region.  

Unacceptable Statistics

Despite advances in the early detection and treatment of cancer, significant disparities in incidence, morbidity and mortality persist in Philadelphia-NJ-NYC corridor. 

"For too long, certain communities have faced barriers that prevent them from getting the best-available cancer prevention, detection and treatment -- and they suffer disproportionately as a result," explains Olorunseun Ogunwobi, MD, PhD, SPEECH’s Principal Investigator at Hunter College and Director of Hunter’s Center for Cancer Health Disparities Research. These barriers include proximity to care, economic hardship, health literacy, food and housing insecurity – and much more.

What will it take to advance cancer health equity? The multipronged strategy that SPEECH employs: Biological, behavioral, environmental, structural, and societal tactics that draw on the deep community ties that Temple, Fox Chase,  Hunter, and their community partner organizations have built throughout the years.

“We leverage our strong community ties to engage people in hard-to-reach neighborhoods as partners in our research and our efforts to build a diverse pipeline of future health professionals and health disparities researchers to serve their communities," Dr. Ma explains.

In the words of Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, “community voices are an essential part of the SPEECH partnership. Cancer is not just a disease in a clinical sense; it disrupts families and lives. With our deep community ties and service-oriented academic programs, we can make a real difference by identifying strategies to reduce cancer disparities while also addressing the multifaceted needs of patients and families affected by the disease."

Inspiring Results, Motivating Keynote

Every year, the SPEECH partners pursue their mission with more vigor -- as demonstrated by the excitement of the presentations made at last week’s gathering (see the link to the speaker list below); the  scientific posters presented by students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior faculty (see the list of winners below); the findings presented by project teams that focus on specific cancers; and the progress noted by team cores, which lead research, training, planning, outreach and evaluative functions.

Applause resounded as honors were presented to community and clinical partners: Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (Brooklyn, NY);  Voces Latinas  (New York City, NY); Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition (Philadelphia, PA); Puerto Rican Unity for Progress (Camden, NJ); and the Greater Philadelphia Health Action (Philadelphia, PA). 

Energizing networking sessions promoting team science brought together investigators, faculty, researchers, and professionals in cancer research.  Dr. Sandra San Miguel, Program Director at NCI’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, highlighted important NCI funding opportunities for students and early-stage investigators. Groups also toured Temple University Hospital, the Lewis Katz School of Medicine’s main building in Philadelphia, Fox Chase Cancer Center. and Hunter College. 

A rousing keynote was delivered by Howard Koh, MD, the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of Public Health Leadership at Harvard University and Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009 to 2014.  

“Health begins where people live, labor and learn -- not in a physician’s office,” he said, emphasizing that “community health and individual health are inextricably linked.”

“The World Health Organization calls the highest attainable standard of health “a fundamental right,” he said. And leadership is “refusal to accept the status quo.”

With this, he expressed admiration for everything the NCI and SPEECH partners are doing to achieve cancer health equity – and he called Dr. Ma “a legend in public health and cancer control.”

Dr. Ma expressed profound gratitude to Dr. Koh and everyone connected with SPEECH as she summarized the partnership’s top-level results.  Since 2019, SPEECH has:

  • Launched 108 cross institutional research projects
  • Made 444 presentations to scientific and community groups (the majority were led by SPEECH trainees)
  • Produced 250 scientific publications
  • Engaged 84 multidisciplinary faculty investigators in basic, clinical and population cancer research
  • Attracted more than $75 million in additional grants to extend the work by SPEECH investigators
  • Trained and mentored 207 trainees across all academic levels (undergraduate to graduate, medical students, PhDs, postdoctoral students, and assistant professor-level early-stage investigators; about 80 percent of SPEECH trainees are from disadvantaged backgrounds)
  • Established collaborations with 51 community- and faith-based organizations
  • Trained 47 community health workers to build community capacity to implement cancer prevention  
  • Educated 1,340 community members on liver, colon, and lung cancer prevention
  • Co-organized 100 community outreach events

“Grants end. Projects conclude. But our trainees, providers, and community ambassadors will carry on!  Take pride in yourselves, in knowing that your work will generate positive impact far into the future,” said Dr. Ma. 

Rave Reviews

People are talking about SPEECH.  Here are a few things they’ve said:

“SPEECH has it all going on, everywhere from high-tech genetics labs to clinics to community centers and churches!  This partnership is a  hallmark example of the kind of initiative we need to see more of,” said Amy Goldberg, Dean of Lewis Katz School of Medicine.

“SPEECH’s powerful, practical action-oriented research takes findings out of the pages of journals and into the community,” said David Wiest, Chief Scientific officer at Fox Chase. He also called SPEECH “a partnership for, with, and by the people – a truly democratic effort.”

“We owe Dr. Ma – and all of you – and all our funders, advisors, partners, project and core leaders, trainees, and mentors -- a huge debt of gratitude,” said JoAnne Epps, Temple University’s Acting President. “We are deeply appreciative of the guidance we receive from our community leaders and community members from many different cultures and backgrounds. Thank you all for your extraordinary work. I wish the SPEECH Partnership and all of you continuing success for many years to come.”





Category               Poster #              Winner

Undergraduate              43        Nisha Manahil

Undergraduate             42        Mashhura Nurilloeva

Graduate                      37        Annie Fuller

Graduate                      36        Jason Wasserman

Graduate                      17        Ruisa Lee

Early-Stage Investigator  4         Thoin Begum, PhD

Community/Other        48        Madeline Bono


To see the 2023 SPEECH conference book – which includes the full list of speakers, program leaders, poster abstracts and more  -- click here.          

Acting President, JoAnne A. Epps, Dr. Amy Goldberg, and other members of the LKSOM team

SPEECH’s leaders with institutional leaders (L-R):  Lin Zhu, PhD (Lewis Katz School of Medicine); Carolyn Fang, PhD (Fox Chase Cancer Center); Jennifer Ford, PhD (Hunter College); Joel Erblich, PhD (Hunter College); Amy Goldberg, MD (Dean, Lewis Katz School of Medicine); David Wiest, PhD (Fox Chase); JoAnne Epps, Esq. (Acting President, Temple University); Sandra San Miguel, DrPh (Program Director, NCI), Grace Ma, PhD (SPEECH Principal Investigator and Associate Dean, Lewis Katz School of Medicine); Beti Thompson, PhD (SPEECH Program Steering Committee Chair); Olorunseun Ogunwobi, PhD (PI, Hunter College); Chris Braun, PhD (Associate Provost for Research, Hunter College); Yin Tan, MD (Lewis Katz School of Medicine).

SPEECH 2023 attendees in a group photo

The SPEECH team of faculty, trainees, and community leaders gathered at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine on May 18 for the partnership’s fifth annual conference to showcase multidisciplinary cancer health disparities research.

Award winners posing with their plaques

Recipients of SPEECH’s 2023 Awards for Outstanding Community Engagement: Voces Latinas (New York City, NY); Puerto Rican Unity for Progress (Camden, NJ); Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (Brooklyn, NY); The Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition (Philadelphia, PA); and Greater Philadelphia Health Action (Philadelphia, PA).