NIMHD’s Conversations with Principal Investigators at Research Centers in Minority Institutions
As we celebrate Black History month this year, we are recognizing community-engaged scientists at institutions that are historically committed to training populations underrepresented in science.
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 Vincent C. Bond, Ph.D., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.
Dr. Bond is professor and chair of the department of microbiology, biochemistry, and immunology (MBI) at the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), and principal investigator for the MSM RCMI U54 Center for Translational Research in Health Disparities.
Dr. Bond was influenced by his family to pursue a research career in minority health and health disparities. He is part of a large African American family with deep roots in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Dr. Bond first became interested in his family history when his grandmother showed him her father Willis’s 1865 discharge papers from the Union Army. Willis had joined the Union Army in 1864 as a runaway slave and fought in and around Northern Virginia. Dr. Bond began to research his family during his teen years, and continues to pursue this passion, gathering data through interviews of all his grandparents and their brothers and sisters, other extended family, and long-time friends to learn more about his family history.
Through work with the National Archives, Dr. Bond identified a large set of papers on Willis spanning his Civil War records to his death more than 30 years later. They illustrated Willis’s life during and after the Civil War, including his marriage and the birth and early life of his daughter, Dr. Bond’s grandmother.
As an African American, Willis suffered many hardships and inequities of that time, which affected his health. Willis died in his 50s from multiple issues including secondary effects of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that has been passed down to Dr. Bond and his children. These and other family stories stimulated Dr. Bond’s interest in medicine.
Dr. Bond received his Ph.D. in viral genetics studying herpes simplex virus at the Pennsylvania State University. He completed postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology studying cellular/molecular biology, subsequently moving to MSM where he has been studying interactions between HIV and its human host. Dr. Bond’s research goal has been to find new targets and therapeutics to slow or stop AIDS, developing 8 patents around such therapeutics.
Dr. Bond’s first faculty projects were funded through the CDC and focused on the growing AIDS pandemic outside of the Atlanta metropolitan area of Georgia, east to Augusta and south to Macon. His research group published a number of epidemiologic papers on the movement of the viral infection from what was originally seen in the Atlanta area as primarily a gay white male disease, to a small town/rural African American infected population, largely of black women. His team was one of the first groups to document this infection shift, and subsequently expanded his group to begin minority health and health disparities investigations building upon the MSM mission.
This helped Dr. Bond, primarily a bench researcher, to see and understand the linkage between bench, clinical, and community research, and the influences this could have on the target affected community. It colored his view of science and research teams, to this day, and has influenced his mentoring style.
Q & A with Dr. Vincent C. Bond
What is the center’s research goal, purpose and aim?
Morehouse School of Medicine’s (MSM) vision is leading the creation of health equity. The MSM RCMI Center for Translational Research in Health Disparities (CTRHD) is a leader in this institution-wide effort. Committed to improving the health and well-being of minority and underserved populations, the RCMI team scientists conduct research in multiple disciplines including cancer, cardiometabolic disease, neuroscience, infectious diseases—all areas that impact directly upon the communities that MSM has committed to serving. Our work crosses multiple levels: recruiting and retaining minority students interested in research careers, conducting innovative basic science, collaborating with clinical scientists and practicing health care professionals, and being a partner with the communities in which we work and live that are directly impacted by the health and social issues we attempt to correct.
MSM has coined the term “Tx translational science.” This symbolizes an approach and scientific philosophy that intentionally promotes and supports the convergence of interdisciplinary approaches and scientists. The goal is to stimulate exponential advances, ultimately more rapidly influencing the health of diverse communities. The CTRHD targets development of multidisciplinary translational teams (MDTTs), a scientific work process through which health/research/disparity issues are addressed, not in unit silos, but through the assembly of cross-department, cross-institutional multidisciplinary teams that include basic/clinical/ community/epidemiologic scientists, students, policy makers, and community partners. The CTRHD leads this effort through research projects, pilot project funding, jump start MDTT execution grants, and a logistical MDTT cheerleader to build and facilitate working MDTTs throughout the entire institution.
The MSM RCMI U54 CTRHD team has focused on developing processes, structures, and strategies to build MDTTs which will enhance the rapid translation of health disparities research across the Tx spectrum. The CTRHD will then incorporate these learned best practices into instruction to build MDTTs around all of our research groups.
How is the center advancing the science and health of disparity populations? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
The world is facing a global COVID pandemic and the populations that MSM has pledged to serve are facing disproportionately higher infection and death rates. To address this issue, MSM has designed a comprehensive continuum of COVID services that begin with culturally competent community-based education disseminated through multiple channels—from social media to barbershops. Our goal is to correct the misinformation and provide usable, believable information based on science. We believe that we have “the right message” and we and our partners are “the right messengers”. We have sponsored multiple public demonstrations of Atlanta based civil rights leaders, politicians and medical professionals receiving the vaccine in an effort to increase community belief in vaccine safety. We have set up a testing system for employees, a testing laboratory to service Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) throughout the southeast region, and community testing stations that provide free COVID tests in addition to flu shots, food baskets and sanitation materials. Our RCMI faculty are part of the MSM COVID Vaccine Network Trial (Novavax), for which we are enrolling from the surrounding communities in Georgia. MSM is now designated as a community vaccine site holding weekend drive-through free vaccination clinics for community members. To date, we have administered over 1500 first-dose vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer).
The CTRHD supports three research projects, all MDTTs at different stages of MDTT development, and all focused on African American women’s health. One research project addresses the issue of uterine fibroids. This team has a major community partnership component emphasizing targeted health information to black women. Additionally, the team has a policy arm that is effectively presenting to congressional committees the basic science and clinical research conducted by RCMI faculty and its Tx translation to impact health policy.
From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your center and its impact? Please provide a couple of examples.
At MSM we have learned that “we will solve problems with people that we have yet to meet,” and therefore are always building bridges and reaching out to new team members. Our MBI and RCMI teams met a group of African traditional healers who shared some traditional African knowledge on natural product treatments for HIV/AIDS and other viral disease. The classic reaction to working with traditional healers is, “witch doctors,” perhaps? “Silly” home remedies? To the contrary, our ongoing basic science research and animal studies have identified a protein that is safe and effective against enveloped viruses (HIV, influenza, Ebola, and herpes). This protein is patent protected, and currently being used in ongoing HIV-infected macaque animal trials.
It is our goal to target our research to address minority and underserved populations. To that end we have an institution-wide effort to increase the number of minority patients involved in clinical trials. Our research clearly demonstrates the need for this type of race-specific research. For example, another CTRHD research project has demonstrated, surprisingly, that African American women suffering strokes do not respond to the gold-standard tPA therapy, which is the current agreed-upon intervention.
How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
Our nation has faced a chronic shortage of minority scientists for decades. HBCUs have been and still are one of the largest trainers of STEM students in the nation. After years of various student enrichment and mentoring programs, MSM realized that to truly address this shortage we had to “grow our own.” A comprehensive set of pipeline programs have been developed for elementary, middle, high school and college students. It is our goal to touch students early and often with participatory experiences, research opportunities, community service learning and inspirational mentors. We have expanded our master’s level research programs (graduate, public health, and certificate) and doubled the size of our M.D. entering class. The majority of our applicants are truly qualified to become physicians, researchers, or public health professionals; we simply do not have seats for them all!
Our RCMI has tackled this problem directly through our CTRHD Student Research Training Program. This involves high school and college students in our RCMI-funded research projects through partnerships with local high schools and colleges throughout the Atlanta University Center. Each student acquires longitudinal experience through a paid position in a research project and/or MDTT, and an MSM faculty mentor. This student-level activity is placed within our RCMI Community Engagement Core (CEC). The philosophy of student and community involvement is essential to our CEC work, as well as the MSM mission. Thus, MDTTs have been institutionalized through our regional SACS accreditation process as a part of the required Quality Enhancement Program (QEP). RCMI is continually looking for opportunities to strengthen its pipeline activities as we realize that for us to achieve health equity, we must increase the number of minority scientists.
What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
It is clear that singularly focusing on the science is not enough to address minority health and health disparities. The underlying issues are historically underpinned by institutional racism, as well as persistent economic, cultural and gender inequities. MSM and its RCMI focus on these social determinants of health and the lack of health equity throughout our nation and globe. The future of minority health research is dependent upon the systems that impact health outcomes to work collectively across systems and alter funding mechanisms. We have learned that children do not grow up in three-year grant cycles; funds that only can be spent on antibiotics, but not to pay the heating bill, do not solve the underlying health problems related to poverty.
At MSM we train researchers to examine and understand the social determinants of health and to work directly with community partners. We believe that addressing all health issues must be done hand in hand with policy changes, educational restructuring, and integrative multidisciplinary research training.
Page updated February 12, 2021