When Chyke Doubeni was in high school, he thought he might become an economist, like his older brother. But one day a teacher pulled him aside and noted that Doubeni, a new Presidential Term Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had a talent for science. Perhaps he should consider a career in engineering or medicine instead, the teacher suggested.
Doubeni grew up in Nigeria near the delta of the Niger River, a relatively poor region where many residents lack access to health care. What he saw around him, combined with the idea planted by his high school teacher, offered motivation for a choosing a future in medicine.
“The opportunity to be in a position to help — if not directly, remotely — was suddenly a driving force for me in my interest in pursuing medicine,” Doubeni says.
That career path has taken Doubeni from Nigeria to the United Kingdom to North Carolina to Massachusetts and, most recently, to Penn, where he is on the faculty of the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health as Presidential Term Associate Professor-Clinician Educator. He also serves as vice chair of research for the department.
In announcing his appointment, Penn President Amy Gutmann called Doubeni “a dedicated cancer researcher and clinician whose work reflects his passion for reducing inequities in access and quality of care to underserved populations.”
Doubeni has channeled his desire to help into groundbreaking research and clinical work that aims to erase the inequities that frequently arise in health care and health outcomes among different racial and socioeconomic groups.
Upon earning his medical degree at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, Doubeni began training as a surgeon. After moving to the United States, however, he became interested in family medicine and switched specialties, training at Duke University Medical Center.
In North Carolina, he worked in underserved communities as a medical director and staff physician, witnessing the experiences ofpeople seeking health care — and the obstacles many faced.
“That really was the most formative of my experiences in the United States,” Doubeni says.
He began focusing his attention on one disease in particular: colorectal cancer. This condition is ripe for the study of disparities. Blacks are less likely than whites to get screened for colorectal cancer, for example, and more likely to die from the disease if they develop it.
These gaps are not due to differences in genetics, Doubeni says. They are purely a result of social, environmental and behavioral factors.
“If we applied all the knowledge that we have about colorectal cancer, there should never be any disparities between low-income people and high-income people or between blacks and whites,” he says.
Doubeni is working to both apply and expand upon this knowledge of the disease to eliminate these disparities.
On the level of prevention, he hopes to move into a new area of research to find agents that might prevent or stave off colorectal cancer, just as the HPV vaccine does for cervical cancer. In the realm of screening and early detection, he’s attempting to understand why colonoscopies — widely considered the gold standard for detecting cancer or precancerous polyps — can sometimes fail. And to help tailor prevention and treatment strategies to individuals, Doubeni is planning to work with his new Penn colleagues to create a tissue bank that could help scientists find biomarkers that predispose individuals to developing colorectal cancer.
Much of his research has been done in partnership with Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, looking at a general population of HMO patients. In his new position at Penn, Doubeni is also hoping to study the patient population at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Though Doubeni’s work has implications for improving care for individuals, he also emphasizes that outreach must occur on a community level to achieve widespread change.
“One of the things that we need to do is to work with community partners to develop interventions and improve access,” Doubeni says. “This is very important to me as a family doctor.”
Such interventions may not only help reduce disparities when it comes to colorectal cancer, Doubeni says, but could also offer lessons for improving other areas of health-care access. He believes Penn is an ideal institution for broadening this reach.
Doubeni cites the Leonard Davis Center for Health Economics, the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Abramson Cancer Center as just a few of the places on campus where he is already looking for partners.
“I’m a population scientist with a strong interest in colon-cancer screening and prevention,” Doubeni says, “but we need to find these other pieces of the puzzle — the pathology labs, the surgical groups, the gastrointestinal groups — to form a strong team and hopefully move the field forward.”