Montana State University

MSU and partners awarded $20 million grant ­­to address Native health disparities in Montana and Alaska

August 16, 2016 -- By Bill Stadwiser for the MSU News Service

Montana State University and several partners have received a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to address health disparities facing Native communities in Montana and Alaska. MSU Professor Allen Harmsen, pictured here, will co-direct the new program with Dr. Jay Butler of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – Montana State University and several partners have received a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to address health disparities facing Native communities in Montana and Alaska, university officials announced Aug. 16.  

The new American Indian-Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research Program includes collaborators from Blackfeet Community College, the University of Montana, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Southcentral Foundation.

Allen Harmsen, MSU professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science, who until recently served as principal investigator for the Montana INBRE program, will co-direct the new program with Dr. Jay Butler of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Due to NIH guidelines, Harmsen cannot direct this grant and Montana INBRE at the same time. MSU chemistry and biochemistry professor Brian Bothner in the College of Letters and Science succeeded Harmsen as INBRE director in July.   

“Montana State University is pleased to have this opportunity to work collaboratively across Montana and Alaska to make a difference in healthcare,” said Renee Reijo Pera, MSU vice president for research and economic development.

This program is the first capacity-building collaboration of its kind to focus solely on Native health disparities in Montana and Alaska, according to Harmsen. Montana and Alaska are similar in that both states have large Native populations and both face disproportionately high Native health disparities rates, he added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that American Indian and Alaska Native death rates were nearly 50 percent greater than non-Hispanic whites between 1999 and 2009. Compared to whites, Native American people in Montana suffer significantly higher death rates for cancer, heart disease, stroke, motor-vehicle injuries and diabetes, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

In addition to facing similar health disparities rates, Harmsen said that the motivation to pool resources also stems from Montana and Alaska housing investigators with complementary expertise.

“Researchers in Montana and Alaska have a great deal to learn from each other,” Harmsen said. “Both states have a small cohort of established investigators with expertise in Native health and health disparities. However, the academic and medical institutions of Alaska and Montana do not have the critical mass of NIH-competitive investigators needed to address these disparities adequately. That’s a trend we aim to change.” 

To grow clinical research capacity in both states, Harmsen envisions the new program functioning as a conduit for shared resources, joint training opportunities and interdisciplinary research collaborations. To implement this vision, activities will be organized under four areas of emphasis, including community engagement, professional development, pilot projects and research design, he said. Within these core areas, accomplished researchers and community leaders will be available to mentor less-established investigators toward building independent, self-sustaining clinical research programs.  

Equality and respect among network collaborators are major priorities for the new program, Harmsen said. He noted that community engagement experts will be involved in developing culturally respectful research partnerships with Native people and helping to build partnerships rooted in community-based participatory research methods. These types of approaches structure research around community-defined cultural, linguistic and health needs as well as embrace community members as co-developers of projects.

“We believe that Native community members themselves are best suited to carry out the research necessary to mitigate the health disparities they experience,” Harmsen said. “Part of our role is to help investigators utilize established community-engagement principles with Native communities serving as equitable research partners. This approach creates opportunities for Native people to define their own research priorities and co-develop thoughtful clinical and translational research projects.”

Housed at MSU, the American Indian-Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research Program and Montana INBRE are part of the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences division of the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers U54GM115371 and P20GM103474, respectively.

Contact: Allen Harmsen, American Indian-Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research Program at MSU, (406) 994-7626 or aharmsen@montana.edu

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