New UNC diabetes project seeks to reduce health disparities

UNC Pembroke has joined a consortium of universities and other organizations led by UNC-Chapel Hill to fight diabetes in North Carolina.

UNCP will receive $119,276 to fund the first year of the project titled the Diabetes Translational Research to Reduce Health Disparities. The community outreach project is funded by a five-year, $3 million grant to UNC-Chapel Hill from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. With its partners, including Wake Forest and East Carolina universities, the project reaches across North Carolina. The Robeson County Health Department is another local partner.Four UNCP professors, led by Dr. Frankie Powell of the School of Education, will work with the UNC Center for Health Promotion to create a “communities connections core” to collect data and facilitate research and training.

“This is a big multisite program, and we’re pleased to be part of it as the community connection,” Dr. Powell said. “We’re a minority-serving institution in a region where the incidence of diabetes is high. I am very excited to be a partner because my research background is in health disparities. It is a good fit all the way around.”

Dr. Linda Little, director of UNCP’s Office of Sponsored Research and Programs, facilitated the UNC-Chapel Hill project with UNCP faculty.

“This project is nicely timed, given the university’s emphasis on community engagement,” Dr. Little said. “And it presents an opportunity for UNCP faculty to conduct field research.”

Currently, one-in-nine adults in the U.S., or about 264 million people, has Type 2 diabetes. If trends continue, projections suggest that one-in-three people may have the condition by 2050. Diabetes-related annual costs are currently $174 billion and may increase to $336 billion by 2034.

Poor, minority and rural populations with limited access to health care suffer disproportionately. Especially in North Carolina, African-American, Hispanic and Native American populations have a higher rate of diabetes and related complications.

As one of seven such centers in the nation established by the National Institutes of Health, the UNC project will share resources and encourage research collaboration to further the translation of research into actual treatment and measurable outcomes. This critical step adds to the wealth of diabetes care and research already underway at UNC, where more than 200 researchers have been working on $350 million in funded research since 2000.

UNCP will have six responsibilities in the project: 1) compile existing local research data, 2) participate in a community assessment of needs and assets, 3) develop research programs, 4) recruit other faculty, 5) build a diabetes community advisory committee, and 6) identify and review new research possibilities.

Dr. Powell said the university, students, faculty and the community will benefit from the collaboration.

“This project will promote scholarship and research that will come back to the classroom,” she said. “A community-based program like this has potential to uplift our region’s health. If this were baseball, it would be a homerun.”


The UNCP team is made up of faculty members who bring expertise, including Dr. Alfred Bryant of the School of Education, Dr. Cherry Beasley of the Department of Nursing and Dr. Steve Marson of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.

Dr. Powell has a long history with grant work and has published extensively on health disparities and other public health issues including cancer, health education, social services and mental health. On the faculty since 2007, she recently conducted a National Institutes of Health-supported study for a grass-roots breast cancer awareness program in Robeson County.

“We walked block by block with 200 volunteers in Fairmont to talk about breast cancer and early detection,” Dr. Powell said.

Concerning health disparities, Dr. Powell takes the same hands-on approach. “When talking about health disparities, we talk about groups who are successful at living long lives and beating diseases like cancer and diabetes and another group who is not,” she said. “Last year, we saved one woman’s life by convincing her to get a mammogram.”

The UNC diabetes project is a good fit for Dr. Beasley, who brings a history of grant and research work on rural health care in minority communities.

“What I like about this project is that it builds capacity to do research here,” she said. “We will design a transformative care model for our community.”

Dr. Marson also has conducted research in health care and data analysis, and Dr. Bryant recently co-wrote an article published in the Journal of Rural Health comparing public and private health care delivery to Lumbee Indians.

Drs. Powell, Beasley, Marson and Bryant will work with other UNCP faculty to foster research. UNCP’s team members unanimously agree the project is an important collaboration on a critical health issue for the region.

“This is a satisfying victory,” Dr. Powell said, “and with this project, we are setting our sights high, very high.”