Health Care is Not Black & White

February 24, 2021

The Boy Who Grew Up Witnessing Racial Inequality in Africa is Now Reducing Healthcare Disparities Through Scientific innovation

"Health cannot be a question of income", declared the late Nelson Mandela. "It is a fundamental human right."

Dr. Martin Tenniswood, Chief Scientific Officer of miR Scientific

Dr. Martin Tenniswood, Chief Scientific Officer of miR Scientific, and one of the world's leading scientists in the field of prostate cancer has dedicated his life to Mandela’s vision of equality; for decades, he has been working to create scientific solutions that will put an end to the dismal reality he has known since childhood.

Born in Kampala, Uganda, Tenniswood spent his early years in Africa. “My father was recruited at the end of the Second World War as the first professor of chemistry and dean of the faculty of science in Makerere University at Kampala.”

When his father was killed in a car accident, Tenniswood and his mother had to return to England. But it wasn't long before he came back to the continent of his birth, this time with his mother and stepfather, who began working as teachers in Zimbabwe.

“In Africa, we lived very different lives from the black population,” he admits as he shares his first striking encounter with racial disparities, a memory that shaped his lifelong mission. “We had African house staff at home, and one of them had a young child who got sick with pneumonia. My mother rushed the parents and their baby, with me in the car, to the African hospital. Most whites wouldn't have known where the hospital was, but she did as it was on her way to work.”

Tenniswood remembers walking into the hospital, and the first question they were asked was: How much can you pay? “The way I heard it was, ‘You can have the 10-shilling care, the five-pound care or the 10-pound care’. I remember thinking: that wasn’t right.”

What was just as striking for him, even as a young boy, was the devastating but almost unavoidable turn of events. “The baby was much sicker than he should have been had they  gone to the hospital sooner, but they went to a traditional healer first.” Accessibility to good medicine, he realized even as a young boy, can sometimes mean life or death.  

This was one of multiple cases of disparity in healthcare that Tenniswood witnessed as a little boy. He realized that when some questions literally have a black and white answer, bold actions were needed to end inequality.

Disparities in healthcare are too many to count, but when it comes to prostate cancer, the facts are simply shocking.

In the US, African American men are 1.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with and 2.2 times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men. African American men are also more likely than white men to be diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease.

Just as Tenniswood witnessed so many years ago in Africa, today, access to affordable and innovative health care can mean life or death. Research has shown that with similar access to care and standardized treatment, mortality rates among African American men with non-metastatic prostate cancer was comparable stage-for-stage prostate cancer-specific to those among white men.

Tenniswood has dedicated the last 40 years to paving an innovative and previously untraveled path towards change. He realized that for too long, men of all ethnicities -- and as proven time and time again, African men in particular – have had to undergo ineffective, painful and inaccurate tests for prostate cancer that have led to misdiagnosis, ill-treatments, and to loss of life.

After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies in Canada he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute for Medical Research in London learning new cloning technologies. From there to Canada as an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa where he put his postdoctoral training to good use, cloning the genes expressed in the prostate that might be involved in prostate cancer. "I looked at what happens when you castrate the animal using the androgen because that causes the prostate itself to regress and also prostate cancer to die.”

Through these experiments, Dr. Tenniswood and his students discovered a gene called Clusterin, which later became a focus of research for other researchers in the field. He has subsequently studied the role of androgens and vitamin D in regulating prostate cancer growth.

“One day, I received a call from Professor Don Coffey, one of the major researchers of prostate cancer, who was based at Johns Hopkins. He asked me to come to the National Institute of Health and be part of a small team of professionals who were working to revolutionize prostate cancer research. I flew down to Washington, and as I walked into the meeting, I remember thinking these were the people that I constantly quoted in all of my papers, all the major players in the field. They were giants.”

The most significant conversation he had with Coffey brought him back to his initial mission and led to his focus today. “He said to me, "You've got to understand: I don't care how much you’ll end up knowing about the transcription of genes in the rat prostate in response to androgens. If you don't tell me how that impacts treatment, I'm not interested.”

His mission, just as Professor Coffey had articulated it, was to turn his research into a practical solution for men and through that, turn his vision of equality in healthcare into a reality. “As opposed to rats and mice, I was now working to continue with my experiments to directly benefit humans.” Dr. Tenniswood was on a mission to find an effective and painless way to detect and classify prostate cancer in men.  

Dr. Winnie Wang, today miR’s Director of Science, completing her Ph.D. thesis under his mentorship. "Her thesis focused on the regulation of microRNAs and other small non-coding RNAs in human prostate cancer cell lines... We realized that these small RNA molecules could be used to identify patients that had indolent versus aggressive disease.” Since then, Tenniswood and the research team in the company have been working tirelessly to establish a validated, accurate and effective test for prostate cancer that is accessible to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity and social-economic background.

The breakthrough Sentinel test he developed along with his team at miR Scientific is non-invasive and can accurately detect prostate cancer as well as classify the risk category of the disease based only on a single urine specimen; it greatly reduces the need for invasive diagnostic biopsies.

“When I grew up, I realized that disparities exist all the way through the system.

This stuck with me. Throughout the years, I became aware of the fact that in the United States and in Canada, where there are large Afro-American and Afro-Canadian communities, there is substantial discrimination when it comes to healthcare.”

He brings up another element which needs to be taken into consideration: “When I started looking into the issues of race and prostate cancer, I recognized that while many focus on the underlying genetics of the disease, there is undoubtedly a genetic component to prostate cancer among Black men, as a molecular biologist what I saw was a major difference in accessibility to healthcare that had more to do with culture and socio-economic inequality than with genetics,” he claims. “This test will allow us to manage the disease much better, allocate resources more efficiently, and focus on high-risk patients who are in need of definitive treatment quickly," he said.

The standalone, accessible liquid biopsy test is exceptionally equated and can eliminate the need for long, expensive processes and painful - inconclusive procedures, and will soon be available for everyone. As a result, Tenniswood believes that he is continuing his boyhood goal and made an important contribution to reducing inequality and providing a better standard of care for everyone.

Start a conversation