Smoke in Lungs iStock
According to data from the American Lung Association, smoking among American Indians and Alaska Natives is 32 percent—the highest among any racial or ethnic group.

Bear River Band Invests in Early Detection of Cancer and Saving Lives

Alysa Landry

Hoping for returns that are both financial and medical, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria has invested in blood testing for the early detection of lung cancer.

The Bear River Band, a small tribe on California’s northern coast, in November announced an equity investment in 20/20 GeneSystems, Inc., a Rockville, Maryland-based biotechnology company that develops tests to aid in the detection and diagnosis of cancer. By supporting the company, the tribe is investing both in financial diversity and the health of American Indians, who can face disproportionately high rates of lung cancer, said Matthew Mattson, executive director for tribal operations at the Bear River Band.

“Part of the tribe’s economic strategy is to find investments in different sectors,” he said. “That’s helpful from a diversification standpoint. But we’re also looking for investments consistent with tribal values, and early detection of cancer—given the rate at which it has affected Bear River members—that’s an underlying business we can believe in.”

The tribe, established in 1910 as a home for homeless, landless Natives, was terminated in 1958 by the Rancheria Act. It regained federal recognition in 1983 and now comprises about 560 members.

Economic diversity is a top priority, Mattson said. The tribe’s main source of revenue is the Bear River Casino Hotel, which employs more than 400 people and is one of the largest employers in Humboldt County.

“Right now, the casino is the primary driver of opportunity and income,” Mattson said. “We saw this investment opportunity (at 20/20) as part of a larger overall effort.”

The state of Maryland offers tax incentives to investors in the biotechnology industries. The program, extended to seed early-stage biotech companies, means the Bear River Band can expect a 50-percent return on the investment.

“Investing is always inherently risky,” Mattson said, “but this is a unique investment, and we’re confident that this company will be successful in the long run.”

In order to be eligible for the tax incentives, the tribe had to invest at least $25,000. It expects to be a shareholder in the company for a minimum of two years, Mattson said.

Dollars aside, the investment also allows the tribe to look out for the health of its members and Indian country as a whole. Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States, killing an estimated 160,000 people in 2014 alone.

According to data from the American Lung Association, smoking among American Indians and Alaska Natives is 32 percent—the highest among any racial or ethnic group. And with 80 percent of lung cancer incidents linked to tobacco use, the disease is prevalent among Natives.

Early diagnosis of lung cancer is key, said Jonathan Cohen, president and CEO of 20/20 GeneSystems. With a five-year survival rate of less than 20 percent, a blood test could catch the disease within its earliest stages.

“For stage 1 and 2 lung cancer, survival is linked to early detection,” he said. “The person has to get to a surgeon before the tumor grows.”

The test is a protein assay that measures lung cancer analytes in the blood. In simpler terms, the test predicts the likelihood that someone has lung cancer at the time of the blood draw, Cohen said. 20/20 GeneSystems makes the test available to primary care physicians who can use it to help detect lung cancer in patients who are smokers or former smokers. To be most effective, the test should be conducted once per year.

The possibility of saving lives is enough for the Bear River Tribe to get on board, said Dakota McGinnis, economic development director and vice chairman of the tribe’s seven-member council.

“We’ve lost some elders and others to cancer over the years,” he said. “Tribes have a history of cancer, and any test that has the ability to detect early and may be able to save people is good. If we catch it early, the success rate of surviving will go up.”

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