Health disparities research center launched with $11.5 million grant

The Stanford Precision Health for Ethnic and Racial Equity Center will be one of the first national centers focused on using precision-medicine tools to improve the health of underserved ethnic and racial groups.

- By Kris Newby

Yvonne Maldonado and Mark Cullen will lead a new NIH-funded center aimed at improving the health of underserved ethnic and racial groups.
Norbert von der Groeben

A newly established center at the School of Medicine will focus on identifying genetic and biological markers that could be used to help reduce disease in minority populations in the United States.

The Stanford Precision Health for Ethnic and Racial Equity Center, known as the SPHERE Center, will be funded by a five-year, $11.5 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health.

The center also will develop analytical tools for precision health, data sets and outreach programs that help accelerate the integration of treatments and interventions within target communities.

This NIH award is one of the first programs funded under President Barack Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which seeks to gain better insights into the biological, environmental and behavioral influences on diseases in the United States. This specific award targets socioeconomically disadvantaged and rural populations that experience a disproportionate share of many diseases and adverse health conditions.

“At Stanford Medicine, we are committed to ensuring that all populations benefit from the precision health revolution,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Through this new center, we are honored to contribute to the elimination of health disparities as we lead the transformation of medicine away from after-the-fact diagnosis to prediction and prevention.”

Mark Cullen, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences, said the award “is a great vote of confidence for Stanford’s precision health initiative. It also underscores our expanding commitment to applying the great discoveries from our labs to serve the needs of the community, a major agenda for population health sciences.”

Cullen and Yvonne Maldonado, MD, professor of pediatrics and of health research and policy, will lead the new center.

“The SPHERE Center will bring together outstanding investigators from across the School of Medicine to address fundamental questions about health and disease among minority populations,” Maldonado said. “These populations are often underrepresented in traditional clinical research, and this center is positioned to address this disparity.”

Initial projects

The center is initially funding three projects. One will look for rheumatoid arthritis biomarkers among members of a Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. It will be led by Michael Snyder, PhD, professor and chair of genetics.

These populations are often underrepresented in traditional clinical research, and this center is positioned to address this disparity.

Another will be led by Thomas Robinson, MD, professor of pediatrics and of medicine. His team will quantify metabolic and biomolecular differences of Latino youth to gain insights into the prevention and treatment of excessive weight gain and diabetes within this population.

The third will develop best practices for communicating genetic cancer risks to Latinos and Asian Americans. VJ Periyakoil, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, will study responses of Latino and ethnic Chinese families when they receive genetic risk information about cancer. Her team will analyze the quality and content of communication between clinicians and patients over a one-year period to determine what health decisions are made based on this information and how long-term outcomes might be improved.

To enable these studies, the center will work with 13 community-based organizations around the country.

Rhonda McClinton-Brown, MPH, executive director of the Center for Population Health Sciences’ Office of Community Engagement, will lead efforts to engage racial, ethnic and low-income communities in these studies. Her team will also align researchers, partner organizations and key stakeholders to accelerate the translation of these research findings into strategies that directly decrease health disparities.

The center will fund pilot projects starting in 2017.

Additional support for the center comes from Spectrum, the Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Research and Education, which is funded by an NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

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