Cancer disparities expert named new SmartState endowed chair

July 24, 2017
Marvella Ford stands in front of Leroy Davis Sr. Hall
Dr. Marvella Ford is known as a bridge builder who connects key players from different institutions.

Marvella Ford, Ph.D., an expert in health disparities and cancer prevention research, has been named the SmartState endowed chair in prostate cancer disparities at South Carolina State University. Gustavo Leone, director of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, called Ford an incredible asset.

"Her ability to forge partnerships with individuals from various institutions with different interests and expertise is the type of forward thinking that will allow us to tackle the biggest issues surrounding cancer prevention, control, and disparities," Leone said. "Cancer disparities, such as increased mortality in African-American men with prostate cancer, are a major concern for our state and exposing the underlying reasons for these disparities will allow us to better diagnose and treat those patients." 

With the establishment of the new SmartState endowed chair, Ford will maintain her appointment at the Medical University of South Carolina and hold a joint appointment as a professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at SCSU. Ford is a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at MUSC and serves as associate director of population sciences and cancer disparities at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.

The SmartState program was established in 2002 to invest in research areas that will advance South Carolina’s economy. Each center of economic excellence acts as a resource for the recruitment of leading scientists and engineers whose work will promote and expand knowledge-based industries and increase job opportunities in South Carolina.

John E. Vena, Ph.D., professor and founding chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at MUSC, called Ford a valued member of the faculty with an impressive track record of cancer disparities research, community-based research and training. "She is routinely recognized in national forums for her insights into cancer disparities as a result of her research and her demonstrable success in developing educational programs to promote diversity among early stage investigators and students. This appointment is a testament to her efforts and will strengthen the collaborative partnership between MUSC and SCSU."

Ford began her research in health disparities and cancer prevention studying ways to increase access to and recruitment of patients to clinical trials, particularly among African-Americans and underserved populations. Following her first academic appointment at Baylor College of Medicine, Ford began collaborating with historically black colleges and universities, co-directing the Texas Southern University Center of Excellence in Health Disparities Research. The center’s goal was to expand and strengthen TSU’s capacity to do health disparities research.

In 2010, Ford and Judith Salley, chairwoman of the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at SCSU, submitted a proposal to create the South Carolina Cancer Disparities and Research Center (SC CADRE) which would facilitate collaboration between SCSU, the University of South Carolina and MUSC. Funding for the proposal was awarded in 2011, with grants awarded to both MUSC and SCSU. Other federal funding has since been received by MUSC, in collaboration with SCSU and two other South Carolina HBCUs, to provide a research training pipeline for underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences.

James Clark, president of South Carolina State University, was pleased with the appointment. “In this position, Dr. Ford’s strength in building strong collaborative partnerships and developing research and education training programs enhances the expertise at South Carolina State University to address the urgent need to eliminate cancer disparities, particularly prostate cancer, among this community."

Ford also developed the South Carolina Cancer Equity Health Consortium, a 10-week program for undergraduate students at the University of South Carolina and three HBCUs – SCSU, Claflin University and Voorhees College. The consortium supports 20 students annually and is supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense. Ford’s newest training program was developed in collaboration with Burke High School in Charleston. This NCI-funded two-year training program provides cancer research training for a cohort of 20 Burke High School students.

Ford called it an honor to have been chosen to lead research projects that address prostate cancer disparities in South Carolina, where African-American men with prostate cancer are three times more likely to die from this disease compared to their white counterparts. "The contributors to these disparities likely include social and economic factors as well as biological factors. I look forward to developing and testing interventions, based on these factors, to improve prostate cancer outcomes for African-American men in South Carolina and beyond,” Ford said.

Since her recruitment to MUSC in 2005, Ford has been awarded more than $27.5 million in extramural grants as principal or co-investigator, including funding from the National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Department of Defense, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has published over 80 peer-reviewed publications and mentored more than 30 people, ranging from undergraduate students to faculty.