ST. LOUIS • St. Louis University has launched a new project aimed at reducing disparities in cancer incidence and death rates among minorities, particularly African-Americans.

The SLU Center for Cancer Prevention, Research and Outreach is a collaboration between the university's cancer center and school of public health with help from a five-year, $1.25 million grant from Emerson, Express Scripts and Ascension Health.

"We are reaching out to underserved members of minority populations in north St. Louis city and county, trying to expand access to health care and thereby try to reduce the disparities," said Ricardo Wray, director of the new center.

Eventually, researchers hope to expand their programs to immigrant groups in St. Louis including Bosnian and Hispanic populations.

Researchers at SLU initially will team with advocacy organizations including the Breakfast Club, an organization of breast cancer survivors, and the Empowerment Network, which focuses on prostate cancer.

The nonprofit groups work to improve access to cancer education, screenings and treatment among African-Americans.

Black men are more likely to develop cancers and more likely to die from them compared to any other racial group. And while black women are less likely than white women to develop cancer, they are more likely to die from it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disparities have been attributed to differences in insurance coverage, cultural and financial barriers to screenings, and unequal access to treatments. For reasons still unknown, some tumors are found to be more aggressive in minority patients.

But socio-economic status, and not race, contributes more to a person's chances of developing or dying from cancer. Cancer risk factors — environmental toxins, obesity, tobacco use and a lack of exercise — are all more prevalent in lower income neighborhoods.

That's where researchers feel they can influence change.

"We're pretty ambitious ... and hope that we can really reach a broad sweep of the population and really make a difference to help men and women make healthy choices and lead long and healthy lives," Wray said.