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Detroit doctor’s research into prostate cancer saves lives

Dr. Issac Powell is still going strong at 80-years-old

DETROIT – At 80 years old, Dr. Issac Powell should be enjoying retirement, instead he is still working every day and performing surgery.

Powell, a doctor of urologic oncology at Karmanos Cancer Institute, specializes in prostate cancer. He and his team believe they have uncovered a set of cancer genes that are expressed differently in Black men, which means there racial disparity in prostate cancer when it comes to screening, prognosis and mortality. Powell said it also makes the cancer more aggressive in Black men.

Local 4 is profiling Dr. Powell for Black History Month as a change maker in our community. He shared with us his successes in his field, and the challenges he faced in becoming a doctor including systemic racism, something he has faced most of his life.

MORE: Black History Month Stories

Powell grew up in Gary, Indiana and always knew he wanted to study medicine.

When he began at the University of Michigan in 1958, he realized the racism he experienced in his high school years left him unprepared.

“When I got to Michigan, I realized that I was not as well prepared as my classmates because of my background and in high school, I went to a school that was just integrated, and they were not interested in teaching Black kids. I was not ever allowed in the college-preparatory class. My chemistry teacher, even though I had the highest score on my national exams in chemistry, even suggested I get a job in the steel mill, because he didn’t think I’d be successful in college. So that was a devastating blow and that was my first actual, my first case of exposure to racism,” Powell said.

Despite that overt racism and explicit bias, he persevered. Since fair housing laws weren’t yet created, it was a challenge to even find a place to live during his years in Ann Arbor.

“In those days, they could discriminate based on race, and so they would tell you very frankly we don’t rent to Black people. They didn’t use those kinds of words, they used other words at that time. So that was troubling. In addition, there was professors who, in fact one told me that I could never get a grade higher than a C in his class. And the kind of exams were written examinations, so it was graded subjectively so he could be certain that I would not get above a C based on the way that exams are graded. So those are two experiences at University of Michigan that that I was very concerned about, Powell said.

Powell went on to medical school and became a successful surgeon, and thought leader in prostate cancer research. In particular, how it impacts Black men in comparison to other ethnic groups. He has published more than 100 articles on the subject and studied for decades but he can’t get the funding he needs to further his research.

He believes one reason is unconscious bias by the people chosen to review and approve funds.

“Whether you get funded or not depends on who reviews your grant. And most of the big grants, are you know who is reviewing and never was there a African American scientific, African American scientists reviewing my grants, except on one occasion and that’s because I insisted if I was going to apply for this grant there has to be an African American reviewer,” Powell said.

Powell would like to retire soon and spend more time with his family, especially his grandchildren, but he is concerned that there is no one to carry on his work.

“I hate to leave. I hate to leave my patients, because I know that they’ll get in situations,” Powell said. “It’s important for African Americans to be treated by somebody that looks like them. They’re more likely to be more trusting of someone that looks like them. Unfortunately, they are not enough of us who look like our patients and so that’s another problem that’s difficult to solve.”

“I’m desperately trying to get somebody to replace (me.) That’s one of the reasons why I’m trying to get an endowed chair, because at least that will be enticing for somebody else to come along and do what I’m doing,” Powell said.

Ken Hines is a patient and friend of Powell and has been for more than five decades. Powell treated him for prostate cancer.

“It’s been unrelenting. He’s been in search of additional physicians to continue the research to carry it on in term of all the efforts that he has put into it, all the documentation and all the history that he has,” Hines said.

Local 4 asked Dr. Powell if he seems himself as a change maker:

“Well, I think so. I hope so. I hope I am saving lives. That’s the most important thing I ever wanted to do in medicine is to save lives,” Powell said. “I’m a decision maker as a relates to prostate cancer and racial disparity so in that respect, I think I’m changing the notion or ideas of the majority-white health system, specifically urology, as it relates to cancers of African Americans.”

Powell was just awarded a presidential citation from the American Urological Association, which is a top honor in his field.


Dr. Powell was also profiled by Al Roker on NBC’s “Today” for Black History Month. Kimberly Gill and Roker spoke recently about the changemaker. You can watch the conversation in the video below.


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