New Hire: Rick Kittles, Ph.D.
July 6, 2017 | by Samantha Bonar
Rick Kittles, Ph.D., has joined City of Hope as professor and founding director of the Division of Health Equities within the Department of Population Sciences. Kittles’ research focuses on understanding the complex issues surrounding race, genetic ancestry and disease, particularly health disparities among different ethnicities.
He is well known for his research into prostate cancer and health disparities among African-Americans, a field of study motivated by his grandfather’s late-stage prostate cancer diagnosis and subsequent death while Kittles was in graduate school.
“It was just so shocking and quick how it happened,” he recalled. “I had no idea it was such a big issue in the black community.”
Kittles said he “jumped at the chance” to join the City of Hope team.
“I noticed that there’s an enormous opportunity here in Southern California for disparity research and interventions,” he said. “It was an opportunity to take my work to the next level.”
He leaves a faculty position at the University of Arizona, and has previously taught at Howard University School of Medicine, the Ohio State University Medical Center, University of Chicago Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Health equity is a relatively new term, Kittles explained.
“What it focuses on is the incidence, prevalence, mortality and outcomes of diseases across various populations,” he said. “You can stratify those populations in many ways: race, education, geography, socioeconomic status. Health equity explores ways in which we can engage and intervene to eliminate some of those differences that we see across populations. For example, black women are much more susceptible to triple-negative breast cancer. Asians are diagnosed with stomach cancer at a much higher rate. It’s very clear that across many cancers there are various inequities in incidence and outcomes, and we’re looking at ways that we can level that playing field.”
Kittles and his team will be reaching out to underserved populations in Southern California in order to complete genetic studies of complex traits and diseases. Doing such genetic testing allows physicians to tailor treatments to individuals based on their genetic profiles. For example, certain cancer (and other) drugs work better for people with particular genes than for others.
“What I do in terms of ancestry genetics really allows us to delve into the individualized approach,” Kittles said. “City of Hope’s environment gives us the ability to do precision medicine in really unique ways. So the challenge now is to make sure that the technology is available across all communities. That’s what I get excited about. If we use precision medicine in smart ways, we can minimize disparities. I have no doubt that precision medicine is the future of medicine.”
He also wants to help these communities with prevention and intervention strategies.
“We want to have an impact on the community,” he said. “We want to diagnose earlier so you get better outcomes in places where normally they don’t have the ability to do that.“
Kittles received a Ph.D. in biological sciences from George Washington University in 1998. His first faculty appointment was at Howard University, where he helped establish the National Human Genome Center.
Although the bulk of his disease research is in cancer genetics (including prostate, colon and breast), Kittles also is involved in research into other complex diseases such as sarcoidosis, lung and cardiovascular disease, and sickle cell disease.
He has published more than 160 research articles on prostate cancer genetics, race and genetics, and health disparities.
Right now, Kittles is studying vitamin D levels among 4,000 ethnically diverse prostate cancer patients in Chicago and Washington, D.C., in order to improve our understanding of the role vitamin D plays in prostate cancer susceptibility.
“Vitamin D influences immune function and inflammation within the prostate,” he explained. “It is likely that this work will contribute to potential treatment options and more focused prevention strategies.”
He plans to expand that study to Southern California populations.
“Individuals with darker skin make less vitamin D than those with lighter skin. So they have less vitamin D in their tissue. We’re going to continue to look at that here, where there’s a lot more sunlight,” he said.
Kittles’ ultimate goal is to create a center for health equity “where we actually leverage the diversity in Southern California to really try to understand the biological basis for some of the disparities that we see, but also some of the barriers so that we can try to improve health.”
One challenge, he said, is that many underrepresented communities do not want to get involved in clinical research, because they are suspicious of researchers’ intentions. “That’s another barrier we have to deal with,” he said. “You need to bring in diverse researchers and diverse staff and spend time in the communities to build trust.”
When he’s not angling for new research subjects, Long Island-native Kittles said fishing is his favorite hobby: “That’s how I relax. I’m excited to be back by water.”