Mayo Clinic oncologist dedicated to at-risk patients, increasing diversity in clinical trials
Mayo Clinic cares for patients from all backgrounds who turn to us for hope and healing. Yet systemic racism, discrimination and unconscious bias have had an outsized effect on groups that have been underserved in health care.
In July 2020, Mayo Clinic announced a $100 million commitment to eliminate racism and advance equity and inclusivity over the next decade.
This Black History Month, Mayo Clinic Magazine is highlighting the work of physicians who are working to improve diversity and health equity at Mayo Clinic and beyond.
This article originally appeared on the Mayo Clinic News Network website. Learn more at newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org.
Lionel Kankeu Fonkoua, M.D., is an oncologist with Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center who specializes in the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers. He's also a Robert Winn Career Development Award recipient dedicated to helping minority and at-risk patients through research and clinical trials.
Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua is leading a clinical trial through the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program.
"It's a program that's designed to make sure those clinical trials are community designed, conducted and informed to make sure that whatever research we do, we have the intent from the get-go of thinking about the communities that are at risk, vulnerable and most likely to benefit," Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua says.
His study focuses on the immigrant African and Asian communities of Minnesota with a high prevalence of hepatitis-induced hepatocellular carcinoma
— a type of liver cancer.
"This is an at-risk population that we are intentionally targeting, because they are not represented in a lot of our immunotherapy trials," he says.
And that can be a problem for the patients who need treatment the most.
"It's very important to make sure that the at-risk population — the vulnerable population that's going to most likely benefit the most from the therapy — is represented,” says Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua. “It's hard to tell a patient this is a clinical trial
, that had 1,000 patients, and only 1% to 2% were actually like you.”
Representation and building trust matter when working with patients.
"It helps me in that initial contact, that initial trust. Someone might be more receptive if they know it's coming from someone of the same race, from the same ethnicity or, more importantly, from the same background and life experience."
Through the study, Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua hopes to help patients who are not eligible for surgery by combining radiation therapy with a type of immune cell that’s modified in a laboratory and given after radiation therapy.
"These are therapies that five to 10 years ago or more
, we didn't have the ability to do. And I think that's kind of where we are moving forward," Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua says.
What may be surprising is that Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua says he did not intend to be a doctor, but his grandmother's battle with gastric cancer changed his career trajectory.
"There were not a lot of options, not a lot of meaningful treatment options, and there was not a lot of research going on," says Dr. Kankeu Fonkoua. "My parents definitely raised me with that scientific method — both scientists — but I think the drive to go into this humane profession, the spirit behind it, is my grandmother."
He says his grandmother's spirit inspires him still to this day.
"To be honest, in every patient, I see her and the opportunity to hopefully provide better care and hopefully better outcomes than what she had."