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‘Promising’ Cancer Treatments on the Horizon

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Cancer is the nation’s second-leading cause of death for both Blacks and Whites. While there is no known cure for cancer, a flurry of FDA approval requests to treat the most threatening cancer cases has researchers optimistic that progress is being made toward an eventual cure.

As Dr. William Chambers, national vice president of Extramural Research for the American Cancer Society, explains, “Things are happening on all fronts, not just in research, but in clinicals as well.”

Much of the developments are around immunotherapy, an established concept that includes all treatments that employ or manipulate a patient’s own immune system to target the illness.

Researchers seem to be most interested in improving cancer vaccines, which can be preventative (prophylactic), or used as treatment (therapeutic). Two prophylactic vaccines that fight viruses known to cause cancer are already on the market, i.e., the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines. But so far, such vaccines only work for the small subset of cancers caused by viruses. Still, this hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to create a vaccine against cancer itself.

“Most effort has been toward therapeutic vaccines, which seek to immunize those who already have cancer,” Chambers says. “But because there are so many factors, it’s tough to provoke an immune response.”

Therapeutic vaccines either boost overall immune response, or teach a patient’s immune system to recognize and target afflicted cells.

Provenge, the first, and currently only, FDA-approved therapeutic vaccine, does the latter. Provenge is used for prostate cancer and has been shown to add close to four more months of life for near-terminal patients. Although the mortality rate is low for prostate cancer, Black men are more than twice as likely as White men to die from it. They are also 60 percent more likely to contract it in the first place, according to the American Cancer Society.

Provenge is what’s known as a dendritic cell vaccine. It is created from a patient’s own immune cells, and cancer cells. The immune cells are enhanced for growth, “taught” to recognize those cancer cells, and re-implanted into the patient, where the cells multiply and alert the immune system to fight cancer cells like the one sampled.

On another front, Pfizer is partnering with a French pharmaceutical company to create a standardized tumor-cell-based vaccine. This type of treatment samples a tumor cell and reengineers it to be more detectable to the immune system; when the cell is reintroduced to a patient, his or her immune system recognizes and attacks all cells like it. Unlike customized vaccines such as Provenge, this treatment uses a random tumor sample from a patient to create a generalized vaccine that can be used in anyone with a comparable diagnosis.

Pfizer’s is slated to being clinical trials for this treatment next year.

In addition to vaccines, there are monoclonal antibodies, man-made proteins engineered to infiltrate unchecked cancer cells, and make them visible to the body’s immune system. AstraZeneca, for example, is poised to release such a treatment, known as MEDI4736. In its first round of clinical trials, tumors shrank in 19 percent of patients (diagnosed with a few different cancers), and another 39 percent had their cancer stabilize for a year or longer. The treatment is currently in its final round of trials.

A Swiss company is developing a similar treatment for bladder cancer; in its first clinical trial, 52 percent of patients saw their tumors shrink in 12 weeks. Merck is working on a monoclonal antibody to extend the lives of patients with advanced melanoma.

There are also impressive cancer treatment developments happening outside of immunotherapy. This month, researchers at Cleveland Clinic reported they’ve discovered a protein that could slow the growth and spread of cancerous tumors.

Pfizer is ready to release a drug that slows breast cancer development and extends the lives of patients whose advanced-stage breast cancers have spread. In its second round of trials, the drug, palbociclib, reduced the risk of the cancer worsening by 51 percent, and stabilized the patients for close to 20 months.

Of course, these innovative, often personalized treatments come as significant cost. The required three doses of Provenge total $93,000. Medicaid covers it, but 40 percent of prostate cancer patients are under the age of eligibility. Yervoy, FDA-approved to extend survival in patients with advanced melanoma, is $120,000. The companies that make each treatment offer payment plans.

“Like anything, prices will go down with general application, but yes, it’s expensive and labor intensive. …[B]ut they are getting better at it,” Chambers says.

Even when the medical community masters these advancements, treatment will likely remain expensive for patients (even with insurance), until the market is flooded.

“The success we’re seeing in clinicals is pretty impressive, and I’m optimistic this will move forward quickly,” says Chambers of the American Cancer Society. “And I’m seriously hoping that will be the case because…it’s really looking promising.”

GM's Eric Peterson Loves Dealing in Diversity

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By George E. Curry
NNPA Editor-in-Chief

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (NNPA) – After working 37 years for General Motors, it is not unusual for Eric Peterson, vice president of Diversity Dealer Relations, to walk into a Black dealership and be introduced to one of the owner’s children.

“See that man there,” a dealer recently told his son, pointing to Peterson. “He helped me get started. And if you do what you’re supposed to do, he’ll help you, too.”

Peterson has helped many Black dealers for nearly four decades. Not only has he helped them get started, he has helped keep them grow their business.

“Everyone has a story,” Peterson recounted. “My passion is helping people realize their dream. It makes me feel good about what we’re doing.”

And GM has done a lot.

“GM has a long history of diversity and inclusion before it became popular,” Peterson explained. “We started the first minority supplier program in ’68. We started the first minority dealer program in ’72. Rev. Leon Sullivan was the first African American on a major board and that was GM. We started the first dedicated women’s program in 2001. No other manufacturer has done that. Diversity and inclusion has been in GM’s DNA.”

At its peak, there were 400 dealers of color, approximately 150 of them Black. Like the overall figures, the number of minority dealers has also sharply declined. In 2013, there were 208 minority dealerships, tops in the industry. That figure is 211 minority dealers, 44 of them Black.

The company continues to rebound after going through a government-backed bankruptcy in 2009. As part of that Chapter 11 reorganization, the company discontinued its Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn brands and sold Saab to a Dutch automaker.

“When we went through bankruptcy, we downsized our overall dealer portfolio,” Peterson recounted. “We lost about 25 percent of our dealers. Part of it was going through the downturn of ’08 and ’09 – a lot of guys just couldn’t make it because business was off 50 percent. We lost about 25 percent overall, we lost about 28 percent of our minority dealers. Among African Americans, we lost about 33 percent.”

He said GM’s decision to ditch four of its eight brands hit Black dealers especially hard.

“When we put Saturn dealerships in, when we put Hummer dealerships in, we put a lot of African Americans in because those were the new points of opportunity,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, when we had to downsize and consolidate our network, we went down by four brands – from eight to four – and unfortunately, we lost Hummer, we lost Saturn, we lost Pontiac and we lost Saab. So when we lost those, we lost a lot of those dealers.”

Looking back on that period, Peterson said, “While it wasn’t pretty for anyone, we were trying to survive.”

Even in the best of times, it’s not easy to survive.

In order to be successful as a dealer, Peterson said, one has to be what he calls a student of the game, realizing, for example, that a dealer may make a sale, but it is the service department’s reputation that drives customers back for repeat business.

“A lot of them are starting to grow their portfolios,” Peterson said, referring to Black dealers. “Tony March and Ernie Hodge have like 18 different franchises. Very few people know about them because they just work, they just make it happen. It is not uncommon for our dealers to have multiple stores.

“Most of our dealers are first generation [owners] and that’s a challenge when you competing against other dealerships, which are mostly family-owned. It’s not uncommon for them to have second-, third-, or fourth-generation dealers in place, where they’ve just passed it down. We haven’t had that luxury yet.”

But he encourages more Blacks to consider becoming dealers, noting that a business person has to come up with 15 percent of the fee needed to open a dealership [a minimum of $350,000]. Because GM has its own finance and mortgage company, it can provide the rest of the startup capital and finance inventory. In addition, the company pairs future owners with mentors for a year before they operate a dealership.

Sometimes dealers fail before succeeding. Pamela Rodgers, who owns Rodgers Chevrolet in Woodhaven, Mich., is a case in point.

“When she first started, she was working for Ford in accounting or something of that nature,” Peterson recalled. “She heard about our program – it cost about $70,000 at the time, which tells you how long ago it was. She said, ‘I’m going to try that.’ The first time, she wasn’t successful.”

That was in the 1980s. Now, Rodgers is clearly successful, seeing her sales grow from $14 million to $80 million and recently being named Black Enterprise magazine’s Dealer of the Year.

Most of GMs minority dealers — nearly 86 percent – are profitable, just below the company-wide figure of 89 percent. They sold 126,617 new vehicles in 2013, brought in $8.5 billion in revenue, employed more than 12,000 people and 68 minority dealerships earned $1 million or more in net profit.

Though his title encompasses the word “diversity,” Peterson is clear that Blacks must not get marginalized as companies shift from favoring affirmative action, primarily for Blacks and women, to diversity, which is a broader term that can encompass a variety of groups.

“Now, everything is becoming more multicultural, everything is becoming more minority and diversity focused and is taking attention away from ethnic groups,” he said. “From my perspective, we get lost in that shuffle.”

To avoid that, Peterson makes the business case from growing the number of dealers who look like him.

“A lot of people say, ‘It’s a nice thing to have minority dealers.’ This is a business imperative. With GM, 25 percent of our cars are bought by African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans; my perspective is that we need to grow that.

“As I tell people I work with, increasing the number of minority dealers, minority suppliers, minority agencies, minorities that work for GM is a business imperative because you need the right people at the table that can relate to this growing segment we have out there. If we don’t do this, someone else will. I want to increase our market share. It’s all about business.”

Peterson started in the mailroom of GM and successfully climbed the corporate ladder. But after moving 10 times and holding a variety of jobs, he gets the most satisfaction from increasing the number of Black dealers.

“The better days of my life outside of God and my family is putting dealers in,” he said. “On the day they are signing that agreement, they have this big smile on their face and say, ‘I finally made it.’”

Reparations Fight Gaining Steam; Caribbean Serious About Making Europe Pay

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By Bert Wilkinson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

Caribbean governments this week erased any lingering doubts that they are serious about making Europe pay for the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade by holding their most important preparatory meeting yet ahead of plans for a high level delegation to travel to Europe to serve demand payment letters in the coming weeks.

From his office in Bridgetown, Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart Monday evening presided over a four-hour video conference session on the subject of reparations where all the loopholes in the region’s case for payments were refined and defined. In this he had the support of Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the man credited with bringing other leaders on board to push Europe into compensating the region for the slave trade and the genocide associated with it.

Officials close to the meeting said that the video conference had involved about 70 persons, most of them delegates representing all 15 nations in the regional trade bloc and decisions flowing from this will be handed to presidents and prime ministers when they meet at their main annual summit in Antigua from the beginning of July.

A draft letter of demand has been prepared, setting out the horrors of the slave trade, “its lasting effects on the Caribbean population” and offering countries like Britain, The Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal among others a chance to negotiate a settlement with countries.

And because some countries were colonized and its slave populations brutalized and robbed of wages more than one European nation, the narrative for every country varies to cater for such highly place officials said.

“After we would have served the letters of demand on Britain and the Dutch to start with, it will offer them a chance to sit down and negotiate with us but if this fails it will lead to a lawsuit seeking compensation before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands,” an official who attended the meeting said.

Regional attorneys general are being brought on board to help refine the draft for on passage to leaders. Some of those who attended Monday’s video conference meeting favor a physical presence in Europe to serve the letters but a final decision will be made as to exactly how this will be accomplished.

Additionally, a group of eminent Caribbean attorneys will be drafted in to liaise with the British firm of Leigh Day which had successfully sued and made Britain pay for brutalizing the Mau Mau Tribe in Kenya several decades ago. The firm has already said that it is confident that the region has a strong case and like academics and doctors in the University of the West Indies system, has linked a string of chronic diseases rampaging through the Caribbean to the horrors of slavery, poor diet on plantations, forced labor, rape and other inhumanely stressful conditions.

Former African Leaders Call for Legalizing Low-Level Drugs

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network

A frank report cited by two former African presidents has called for the decriminalization of minor drug offenses, saying that trafficking, consumption and production is undermining development in West Africa and abetting corruption.

Picking up the momentum led by some U.S. governors, the report by a panel of African experts criticized current punitive policies which, they said, was fuelling corruption in a region where the cocaine trade alone is estimated at $1.25 billion a year – a figure which dwarfs the combined budget of several countries.

“We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offences,” Olusegun Obasanjo, the commission chairman and former president of Nigeria, told reporters in Dakar, Senegal, last week. He was joined by leaders from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mauritania, Nigeria, Cape Verde and Mali.

According to the West Africa Commission on Drugs, “West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production.

“The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks.”

“Most governments’ reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems,” said Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the U.N., who commissioned the study.

The report blamed the widespread criminalization of drug use for bloating the prison population.

Inmates are rarely reformed and in many cases end up more criminalized or sick as a result of their time inside, said the report, entitled “Not Just in Transit – Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa.”

The policy paper is the result of 18 months of research and consultations with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and several regional and national organizations.

Contributors included Senegalese psychiatrist Idrissa Ba, retired Sierra Leonean judge Justice Bankole-Thompson, Pedro Pires, a former president of Cape Verde.

Governments are urged to avoid a “militarization of drug policy” which, says the report, has been ineffective in Latin America.

“We caution that West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed ‘war on drugs’, which has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business,” the report said.

Move Afoot to Protect Women Around the World Against Violence

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By Jazelle Hunt
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) –Last year, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was amended and reauthorized. This past month, a group of senators began setting their sights on broadening protection to women around the world.

With S.2307, also known as the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), preventing and responding to violence against women abroad would become a top priority of American foreign policy. When he was in the Senate, Secretary of State John Kerry first proposed the bill in 2010. It has failed a few times with several other sponsors since then.

This time, sponsors are hoping for a different outcome.

“Violence against women and girls impedes progress in meeting many United States global development goals,” the bill reads. “It is the policy of the United States to take effective action to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls around the world, as a matter of basic human rights as well as to promote gender equality, economic growth, and improved public health.”

While many applaud the measure – including 300 humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International – there are important questions to consider. With the United States’ track record on the subject within its own borders, and its litany of controversial international interventions, is it reasonable to attempt such a global endeavor?

“Once [the bill] develops more teeth, we’ll see how it interacts with [communities abroad],” says Caroline Kouassiaman, program officer for sub-Saharan Africa for the Global Fund for Women. The advocacy and grantmaking organization collects private funding and redistributes it as grants to independent, community-based women’s organizations abroad.

“The United States is a large player in international assistance, and that plays a role in sub-Saharan Africa in the way funding is allocated for resources,” says Kouassiaman, citing Uganda as an example. There, 40 percent of the national budget is funded through aid from the U.S. and other nations. As a result, the American policies attached to aid guide how Uganda allocates those funds to the community organizations and government agencies that need it.

The bill offers an extensive, but slightly vague outline for implementation. First, it makes the (existing) State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues a legally required entity, and charges the (also existing) ambassador with orchestrating all women-related efforts. The ambassador would also continue to be responsible for creating the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally (devised in 2012 via executive order). As part of this strategy, five to 20 developing nations with “significant levels” of gender-based violence would have individualized response plans.

“I think the grantees we work with would welcome the strong statement. It mirrors the language that exists in a lot of other policies [around the world], and we’re actually in alignment with the rest of the world, which is exciting to see,” says Kouassiaman.

Other directives in the bill include fostering economic, educational, health, and legal activities to combat gendered violence; preventing early and forced marriage; and using “U.S. personnel” to train foreign police and military forces to respond to and prevent violence against women and girls.

For Lauren Chief Elk, activist and cofounder of the Save Wiyabi Project, an advocacy group that addresses violence against indigenous women, that last point is a red flag in an already dubious policy.

“Do I think gender violence is a problem in these countries, yes. But I also think the United States is a root of those causes,” she explains. “What I find problematic is that – and it’s not that thinly veiled – this is very much like what we used to fuel the Iraq-Iran invasion…we’re ‘liberating women.’ It’s not ultimately about helping with gender violence, it’s more about occupation.”

Elk also points out that law enforcement and military are often perpetrators of violence against women, within their own ranks and among those they are supposed to protect. In 2006, a Philippine court convicted an American soldier of raping a woman who lived near the base. In 2011, soldiers based in South Korea were all put under curfew after two soldiers were accused of raping South Korean women on separate instances. Last year, the then-chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office for the Air Force was arrested in Virginia for sexually assaulting a civilian.

“The United States is global violence against women,” Elk says. “We can barely go a day without hearing about sexual assault against women in our own military forces, and these are the people who are going to be solving the problem?”

Kouassiaman is a bit more optimistic, but also remains critical until more details are given.

“[I-VAWA] is very comprehensive legislation…. But there are still a lot of questions in accountability. Who is responsible for enforcing this? One aspect is training military and police to respond, but how, and who’s doing this?” she asks, adding that women themselves should be part of the process. “We also need to address the issue of violence here in our own country.”

One aspect of the bill she and others find promising, is that it shows deference to the women, community systems, and organizations that are already engaged in this work, for and with their own people.

According to the bill, “building local capacity” is a mandatory part of the strategy. Further, “Not less than 10 percent of the amount of assistance provided…should be provided to community-based nongovernmental organizations, with priority given to [those] led by women.”

The bill also mandates “engaging men and boys as partners,” though it doesn’t say how.

Currently, I-VAWA is being reviewed in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. If it passes muster there, it will be put to vote on the Senate floor. From there it must pass a vote in the House, survive any amendments, and then be signed by the president. If the past is any indication, the legislation will likely face an uphill battle.

On the other hand, as Elk points out, the wake of the Nigerian girls’ kidnapping, gang rapes in India, and the Isla Vista, California killings may provide ripe conditions.

“It gets tricky when you frame invasions with aid and help and humanitarianism. It gets people’s emotions going,” Elk says. She offers an alternative to I-VAWA:

“A great first step to addressing gender violence worldwide would be to get military forces out of these countries, including private forces employed by U.S. companies,” Elk recommends, “and then work on getting those companies out.”

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