A Buffalo native and University at Buffalo graduate is embarking on innovative research to challenge a disparity in minority health.
Dr. Candace Middlebrooks is at the start of new research into one of the sub-issues of sickle cell disease.
“Most people think we have solved all of the issues with the disease,” said Middlebrooks. “But the issue is that people with sickle cell disease also have multiple other clinical phenotypes.”
Those phenotypes, or resulting characteristics, include leg ulcers – the cause of which is what Middlebrooks’ research will focus on.
“Some people get these sub-clinical phenotypes, and some people don’t, and we don’t know why,” said Middlebrooks.
Middlebrooks is one of three recipients of the inaugural William G. Coleman Jr. Ph.D. Award from The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The award aims to support innovative research ideas with the potential for high impact in areas of minority health and health disparities research by giving $15,000 to each recipient.
“It’s going to go to getting kits so I can extract DNA from the blood samples that we have,” Middlebrooks explained. “I’m going to be doing that myself. I have to extract it and then I have to purify it and then I’ll be sending it to a group that does exome sequencing.”
Following the sequencing process, Middlebrooks will look to determine what genes within sickle cell patients may be the cause of their often debilitating leg ulcers.
Middlebrooks knew she wanted to be a biologist and help people since she was a six year old growing up on Buffalo’s East Side. But it was during her studies at the University at Buffalo, working to attain her master’s degree in Natural Sciences that she was launched towards medicine. Spending time in a pharmacological lab, Middlebrooks saw the impact that a well-developed drug can have, and working at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, she gained a first-hand perspective of the “bench-to-bedside approach” – taking work in a lab and applying it to the needs of real patients.
“You could see what they were going through, and it really humanized the samples that I was working with,” recalled Middlebrooks. “I could have a sample in my hand and be working with it, or a cell line, and I’d see people, and I’d be like, ‘Wow, this came from a real person who’s sick, who needs my help, who needs all of our help.”
Middlebrooks’ research into sickle cell leg ulcers may help members of the African American community, in particular, because they are predominantly affected by the disease. That outcome falls in line with Middlebrooks’ own goal of advancing the study of diseases that occur at disproportionate rates within minority groups. She said some researchers aren’t interested in conducting studies with minorities, because garnering their participation can prove difficult.
“Sometimes they’re from a lower socio-economic status where they can’t afford to be able to come and give samples or come to recruitment sites because maybe they’re working or having to work extra hours,” Middlebrooks said. “So one of the ways we can help is maybe by getting more money and then being able to go to them and get samples. But before we can get to that point, I need to be able to show that we have some evidence.”
Middlebrooks’ research project, called “Investigation of Genetic Risk Modifiers of Leg Ulcer Development in Sickle Cell Patients Using Whole Exome Sequencing and Microbiome Characterization” is underway in Bethesda, Maryland. She is currently working with two colleagues, but hopes to attain further funding to recruit more investigators and expand the research.