NIMHD’s Conversations with Principal Investigators at Research Centers in Minority Institutions

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month this year, we are recognizing community-engaged researchers at institutions that are historically committed to training populations underrepresented in science.

Dr. Shafiq A. Khan headshot
Dr. Shafiq A. Khan

The Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) program promotes minority health and health disparities research while increasing diversity among scientists and supporting diversity in clinical studies. Its three-tiered research structure offers opportunities for basic, clinical, and/or behavioral research to generate discoveries in minority health and health disparities.

Meet Shafiq A. Khan, Ph.D., principal investigator (2U54MD007590-34) from Clark Atlanta University.

Dr. Khan is the Director of the Clark Atlanta University Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development (CCRTD), a University Center of Excellence that focuses on research in prostate cancer, and is a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Cancer Cell Biology. He is also a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and serves as the principal investigator of the NIH/NIMHD/RCMI program at Clark Atlanta University. He is an adjunct professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech and a member of Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University.

Dr. Khan received his M.Sc. and M.Phil. degrees from Q. A. University Islamabad, Pakistan and earned his Ph.D. from Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden under the mentorship of Professor Egon Diczfalusy, a world-renowned endocrinologist. Dr. Khan then joined Max-Planck Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Muenster, Germany, followed by his affiliations with the University of Toronto and University of Kansas Medical Center. Dr. Khan then joined Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas, as an associate professor in cell biology and biochemistry. He also served as the Director of Basic Research at Southwest Cancer Center at Texas Tech.

Dr. Khan was recruited to Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black university, in January 2004 as a professor and Eminent Scholar to serve as the Scientific Director of the CCRTD and to restructure and reorganize CCRTD to create a focused cancer research program. Due to significant prostate cancer health disparities and its impact in the African American communities, CCRTD decided to develop a comprehensive research and educational program in prostate cancer. Dr. Khan has also served as the program director/principal investigator of the RCMI program since 2004. Dr. Khan maintains a productive research program in the area of prostate cancer cell and molecular biology. He has trained more than 20 graduate students and 17 postdoctoral scientists.

Dr. Khan notes, “Growing up in rural Pakistan, lacking established medical facilities and transportation gave me a deep understanding of health care issues in underserved and poor populations. Later on, during my tenure at Karolinska Institute, I witnessed Professor Diczfalusy working tirelessly to serve global communities especially in developing countries in the areas of health education and population control. For five years, I had an opportunity to work with dozens of WHO research fellows from all over the world in Stockholm. This enriched my knowledge of global health issues. After coming to United States, I became aware of the significant health disparities in underserved and in minority populations in the country. After I joined Clark Atlanta University, I learned in depth about the issues of health disparities in the African American community. Since prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates are highest in African American men compared to all other ethnic groups, we decided to focus our research and educational programs at CCRTD on this disease.”

Q&A with Dr. Shafiq A. Khan

What is the center’s research goal, purpose and aim?

The overall goal of the RCMI-funded “Enhancement of Cancer Research at Clark Atlanta University” program is to support and enhance the function of the Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development (CCRTD), which is the only Clark Atlanta University-wide Center of Excellence. CCRTD was created with the support of the RCMI program in 1999 and is one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation. After I joined Clark Atlanta University in January 2004 to serve as the Scientific Director of CCRTD we decided to focus on the development of a prostate cancer research and educational program due to significant prostate cancer health disparities in African American men. The Center’s mission is trilateral: 1) basic and translational research in prostate cancer; 2) training undergraduate and graduate students and junior faculty to become the next generation of cancer researchers; and 3) dissemination of critical information to local African American communities regarding the impact of prostate cancer. To date, CCRTD has recruited 10 new faculty members, all with joint tenure track or tenured appointments within the Department of Biological Sciences at Clark Atlanta University. All faculty members have active research programs in the area of cell and molecular biology of prostate cancer, and are also involved in training of both undergraduate and graduate students in their laboratories. In addition, CCRTD hosts a dynamic community outreach and educational program.

The current RCMI-funded program supports three main research projects, several pilot projects, a Research Infrastructure Core, an Investigator Development Core, and a Community Engagement and education Core. The overall function of the Center is managed by an Administrative Core.

How is the center advancing the science and health of populations experiencing health disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?

Through this U54 RCMI award from the NIMHD, the new Center enhances current research at the Cancer Center in prostate cancer health disparities. Three main research projects focus on cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in the development and progression of prostate cancer and how these mechanisms may explain increased incidence and more advanced cancers in African American men. In addition, this U54 award supports pilot projects focusing on both biological and/or socioeconomic factors involved in prostate cancer health disparities. The community engagement core supported by the U54 award plays a critical role in establishing community relationships and a two-way dialogue between the scientists and the community at large to understand and mitigate prostate cancer health disparities.

In the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your center and its impact? Please provide a couple of examples.

As mentioned above, I am one of the 10 faculty members who have established research programs in cell and molecular biology of prostate cancer. We each have unique areas of expertise. My research focuses on cancer cell biology cell behavior during different stages of cancer development. Cancer cell behavior is controlled by microenvironment through action of secreted growth factors/cytokines. My laboratory studies the role of these factors during different stages of prostate cancer progression. The earlier stages of cancer development involve deregulation of mechanisms which control cell division leading tumor development. One of our projects deals with the mechanisms which, when impaired, lead to initiation of cancer development. On the other hand, during later stages of cancer progression, the cancer cells acquire mechanisms which lead to increased cell motility and invasive properties which are essential for cancers to spread to other parts of the body. One of our projects deals with a specific protein which is essential for cell motility. Therefore, targeting this protein may lead to development of drugs which inhibit cancer metastasis. We have developed small molecule inhibitors of this protein which are currently being characterized as possible candidate drugs. African American men have higher incidence of prostate cancer and are usually diagnosed at a younger age with a more advanced cancer compared to Caucasian men. One of our projects is looking at the role of specific growth factor which is secreted at much higher levels in African American men and may be responsible for more aggressive disease.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?

Joining Clark Atlanta University and becoming aware of significant prostate cancer health disparities in African American men were my main reasons for establishing the prostate cancer research and educational programs at CAU.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?

It becomes increasingly evident that good STEM programs are foundational for professional careers in biomedical science. We should find ways to provide more internships in biomedical sciences to high school students and undergraduates in underserved and rural communities. It is extremely important that young minorities see individuals who look like them in leadership positions in the research environment. Additional funding should also be made available to current young and junior scientists to further their research endeavors. By doing this, we will show that while biomedical research greatly impacts the health and quality of our everyday lives it is also attainable and accessible to everyone. I believe this will ultimately encourage more youths into this field and provide the platform to retain them.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?

I envision the future of minority health and health disparities research as being the transformation of health care modalities and treatment options for all individuals. If you can target research which focuses on and addresses the health needs of minorities, it leads to successful treatment and alleviation of ill health for society. The number of minority individuals is increasing in the U.S. and aboard. Finding a way to encapsulate research, science and health data of underrepresented and underserved ethnicities will transform health care for all.

Page updated Jan. 12, 2024