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Massey director honored for commitment to diversity in cancer research

Robert A. Winn
Robert A. Winn. Photo courtesy Virginia Commonwealth University.

Robert A. Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center, has received two national honors for his contributions to increase diversity in the field of cancer research.

Winn was recognized as the namesake of a $100 million initiative to increase diversity in clinical trials, and he received a prestigious lectureship from the AACR for using his leadership to further the advancement of minority scientists in cancer research.

On April 10, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, together with its partners, National Medical Fellowships and the AACR, announced a new name for the $100 million, five-year initiative they launched in 2020 to increase diversity in clinical trials: The Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program. The program also received $14 million in funding over the next four years from a new supporter, Gilead Sciences, Inc.

“I am honored to be such a small part of a big program that will have tremendous impact for years to come,” said Winn, who is also the senior associate dean for cancer innovation and a professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the VCU School of Medicine. “I hope this program will help to develop the grace and humility of understanding that there is much to learn from our communities as we are working with [them] to drive and improve health for all of our communities.”

The Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program includes two awards: the Robert A. Winn Career Development Award for early-stage investigator physicians who are from diverse backgrounds and/or committed to increasing diversity in clinical trials and the Robert A. Winn Clinical Investigator Pipeline Program Award for medical students who are underrepresented in medicine (URM). The BMSF has committed to support 250 Winn Career Development Awards and 250 Winn Pipeline Awards. In addition, Gilead Sciences has committed to support 10 of each award per year for the next four years.

“We could not be more proud of Dr. Robert Winn and his strong and effective leadership. As both a compassionate healthcare provider, teacher, mentor and scientist, Rob is deeply committed to ensuring that clinical trials are truly more inclusive and represent the broad diversity of our population, so that trials accurately capture data from all of our people and also that all have access to new treatments, including treatments that will give many a rare chance to stay alive,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “He has worked tirelessly to connect science with our many different communities, so that our work reflects the needs of all of the people whom we serve. Rob’s passion for cancer research, teaching the next generation of empathetic and deeply thoughtful providers, and his boundless energy are unmatched. There’s no one more deserving of this recognition. I’m delighted and proud of him.”

The first cohort of Winn Career Development Award Scholars entered the program in November 2021. These physicians are from 22 states across the U.S. and include 34 women and 18 men who represent a diverse cross section of races and ethnicities, as well as a range of experiences in the therapeutic focus areas of cancer (hematologic and solid tumors), immunologic disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

Their two-year participation in the program began with an intensive AACR educational workshop on “best-in-class” clinical trial design, followed by training in the skills and competencies needed to effectively engage with communities to foster trusted relationships aimed at recruiting diverse clinical trial participants. The Winn Career Development Award Scholars are paired in mentoring relationships with established clinical investigators and also serve as mentors to URM medical students in the Winn Pipeline Award program.

“What an incredible honor for Rob, the Massey Cancer Center and VCU to have the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation and National Medical Fellowships rename their $100M, five-year initiative to increase diversity in clinical trials after him. Rob’s impact on cancer care in Virginia and across the U.S. is immense,” said Art Kellermann, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. “Our nation needs more physician-scientists like him to overcome centuries of disparate health care. Rob believes that every cancer patient — regardless of their race, ethnicity, background or income — deserves great care. That includes access to the latest state-of-the art clinical trials. This fund will bring that day closer to reality across our country.”

Serving as chair of the National Advisory Committee of the BMSF Diversity in Clinical Trials Career Development Program from its inception, Winn’s guidance was instrumental in shaping the newly named clinical trials program.

“We are proud and overjoyed that Dr. Winn has agreed to put his name on this program,” said John Damonti, president of BMSF. “He has been a tireless advocate for the goal of this program – enabling people of color and underserved populations to benefit more from clinical research. Throughout his distinguished career, he has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to community-engaged research focused on eliminating health inequities. It is largely due to his leadership, expertise and passion that the program became a reality.”

Additionally, Winn was honored with the AACR-Minorities in Cancer Research Jane Cooke Wright Lectureship during the AACR Annual Meeting 2022. This lectureship recognizes an outstanding scientist who has made meritorious contributions to the field of cancer research and who has — through leadership or by example — furthered the advancement of minority investigators in cancer research.

“My science lives now but also has a history,” acknowledged Winn.

Since becoming the director at Massey in December 2019, Winn has been a national leader in efforts to study lung cancer, address health disparities and promote community-based health care. His vision to translate basic science into clinical methods for reducing lung cancer disparities has resulted in Specialized Program of Research Excellence and Stand Up To Cancer grants awarded to Massey that focus on the interplay between “ZNA” (an individual’s zip code and neighborhood of association), DNA and overall cancer risk.

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