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Dell Med Cancer Prevention Leader Recognized Nationally for Innovative, Collaborative Work in Cancer Screening and Prevention

April 13, 2023

Michael Pignone, M.D., chats with two men after his investiture ceremony.

Michael Pignone (center) at his Dell Medical School investiture ceremony, held in May 2022.

AUSTIN, Texas — In recognition of national impact in improving cancer screening and prevention, including success in partnering with community organizations to reduce disparities among underserved communities in Central Texas, Michael Pignone, M.D., MPH, today received the American Cancer Society’s prestigious Clinical Research Professor Award. The five-year grant award will support his ongoing work in cancer prevention and control at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

“My prior research, mentorship and service, along with my experience in building and improving clinical care systems, have prepared me well for this opportunity to advance the science and practice of cancer prevention and control, particularly for our most vulnerable populations in Texas and beyond,” said Pignone, who is a professor and chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and the Dr. Lowell Henry Lebermann Endowed Chair at Dell Med, as well as well as co-director of the Cancer Prevention and Control program at the school’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) Clinical Research Professor Award provides $400,000 over five years to support research projects and ongoing efforts. Awardees are selected based on a history of pioneering, influential work that continues to change the direction of cancer research.  

The award will also allow Pignone to develop a cancer control fellowship and career mentorship program, training more junior researchers such as Adewole Adamson, M.D., MPP, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Med.

“Mike has been a fantastic mentor to me and other junior investigators in our growing research group,” said Adamson. “I’m thrilled that the ACS has recognized his contributions by allowing him more time to continue mentoring the next generation of cancer prevention researchers.”

A Novel Approach Making an Impact

In 2017, Pignone and his team at Dell Med partnered with CommUnityCare — the largest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Central Texas — to launch a novel program to improve colorectal screening rates. That included mailing colorectal cancer screening tests, known as fecal immunochemical tests (FIT), directly to the homes of patients who historically have had limited access to preventive care.   

Patients also receive text and letter reminders to complete and return the test. Those who screen positive are connected with one of CommUnityCare’s bilingual patient navigators, who offer support through the process of completing a colonoscopy, the recommended follow-up. 

During its first year alone, the program doubled the percentage of patients screened for colorectal cancer from 18.4% to 37%. Currently, 44% of patients are up to date through this effort and increased clinic-based screening. Importantly, the program has also improved screening equity, ensuring that previously less frequently screened groups have access to care. The initiative is made possible by multiple grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). 

Pignone and his team also work on another CPRIT-funded initiative with CommUnityCare to promote smoking cessation and lung cancer screening in Travis County. Launched in 2019, the three-year program focused on reducing the impact of lung cancer throughout the spectrum of disease.

In total, Pignone has been awarded $6.6 million in CPRIT funding for projects aimed at cancer prevention and control in Central Texas. 

“It’s difficult to overstate the importance of these types of innovative cancer screening and prevention programs, which demonstrate the combined power of academic medicine and community partnership,” said Claudia Lucchinetti, M.D., dean of Dell Med and senior vice president for medical affairs at UT. “As a result of the visionary leadership of Dr. Pignone and our partners at CommUnityCare, transformative research has revealed a highly successful new model for cancer screening.”

Pignone says he’ll use the ACS award to expand these programs even further.

“Finding cancers early improves prognoses and saves lives,” Pignone said. “My goal is to scale this work by advocating for similar programs nationally and internationally. By preferentially working to increase screening in FQHCs, our innovative programs will also help close disparities in screening based on race, ethnicity, education, income and insurance status.”