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Boston University Announces Award for Investigation of Breast Cancer Disparities

by system
Thu, Aug 11th 2011 11:50 am
Boston University School of Public Health  [ View Original Article ]

Why are African-American women more likely than those of European descent to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, and with poorer prognoses?

That's the question that Julie Palmer, professor of epidemiology at the BU School of Public Health and senior epidemiologist at BU's Slone Epidemiology Center, and a team of colleagues will attempt to answer, with a $19.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute [NCI].

Palmer is a co-principal investigator on the study, which will be a collaborative effort of the Slone center, the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Roswell Park Cancer Institute [RPCI]. Palmer's co-leaders are Robert Millikan of the Lineberger center and Christine Ambrosone from the RPCI.

The team of researchers will conduct a wide-ranging probe into the causes of breast cancer among African-American women. For reasons that are not clear, African-American women are more likely than women of European descent to be diagnosed before age 45, and also are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive types of breast cancer that are linked to more deaths. [See this related story: "Study Identifies Contributors to High Rate of Breast Cancer in African-American Women"]

The study -- the largest to date on breast cancer in African-American women -- will involve 5,500 black women from four ongoing studies — the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), the Women's Circle of Health Study (WCHS), the Black Women's Health Study (BWHS) and the Multiethnic Cohort Study (MEC) — as well as 5,500 healthy women, or control subjects. Until now, studies on breast cancer in African-American women have been hampered, in part, by a limited population of research subjects, making it difficult to investigate risk factors for specific subtypes of breast cancer and for breast cancer diagnosed at an early age.

The investigation will be the first to develop comprehensive models for genetic and non-genetic risk factors for breast cancer subtypes in African-American women. The collaborators' goal is to discover genetic, biologic, reproductive and behavioral risks for breast cancer subgroups, defined by tumor biology and age at onset of disease.

"By combining our studies and expertise, we will finally be able to uncover the reasons for these disparities," Palmer said. "Our hope is that this research will identify factors that can be used to prevent this deadly disease."

"We've known about these disparities for years, but not what's causing them," added Ambrosone, professor of oncology and chair of the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control, Division of Cancer Prevention and Populations Science, at RPCI. "Drs. Millikan, Palmer and I are passionate about this work, and we're joining forces in an effort to identify factors that can ultimately be used to prevent this deadly disease."

The researchers will use a multi-faceted approach, investigating genetic susceptibility, reproductive history, lactation and hormonal factors; body size and physical activity; and gene/environment interactions, among other risk factors. Black women under age 45 have a 76 percent five-year survival rate for breast cancer, while young white women have an 88 percent survival rate, according to the most recent statistics.

The Slone center has done previous research on cancer and other disparities. The center conducts the Black Women's Health Study, which began in 1995 and assesses risk factors for cancers and other major illnesses in black women, in a prospective follow-up study of over 60,000 African-American women.

Submitted by Lisa Chedekel
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