The New York Genome Center awarded six cancer research grants last week as part of an initiative examining the role of race and ethnicity in major types of cancer.

The projects will investigate a variety of cancers including pancreatic, colorectal and endometrial cancer in African Americans; lung cancer in Asian Americans; breast and prostate cancer in patients of African ancestry; and the role of ethnicity in bladder cancer.

The Genome Center’s 2-year-old initiative, called Polyethnic-1000, is aimed at closing the knowledge gap that exists largely because decades of genetic studies focused mainly on white patients. Dr. Harold Varmus, a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, said he hoped the projects would advance the understanding of racial disparities in the prevalence of different cancer types, as well as patient responses to different cancer therapies.

“The disparities are there, but the explanations are not,” said Varmus, who previously served as head of the National Institutes of Health and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Expanding genetic research to become more representative of the broader American population will also further researchers’ understanding of cancer. “Leaving people out is an equity issue and a knowledge issue,” he said.

Black Americans have the highest death rate of any racial group for most cancers; some 73,000 African Americans die of cancer each year. But cancer research has focused disproportionately on white patients because it tends to be conducted at research centers with rich resources that have more affluent and white patient populations. That sometimes leaves researchers unsure of their work’s relevance to Black, Latino and Asian patients, and unable to fully anticipate how these populations will respond to drugs and therapies.

“When we generate results, we don’t know if they apply to underrepresented minority communities,” said Dr. Deborah Schrag, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Many social and socioeconomic factors affect racial disparities in cancer. But some forms of cancer affect racial groups differently regardless of socioeconomic status, leading researchers to consider that genetics could also play a critical role.

Dr. Bishoy Faltas, an oncologist at Weill Cornell who is leading the study on bladder cancer, said conducting genetic research on patients of different ethnic backgrounds was important because the way that patients’ immune systems respond to cancer and cancer therapies is determined by their genetic makeup.