Public Release: 

BU researcher awarded grant to better understand breast cancer

Boston University Medical Center

(Boston)-- Why do African-American women die at a higher rate and experience more aggressive breast tumors than white women? Researchers from Boston University's Slone Epidemiology Center (SEC) have received funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to explore this question. The new grant is based on the premise that having a better understanding of the biology of breast cancer in African-American women will lead to better prevention and treatment.

"Identifying genetic variants related to breast cancer in African-American women will further our knowledge of the disease and may ultimately lead us to better treatments and opportunities for prevention," said Julie R. Palmer, ScD, senior epidemiologist at BU's SEC and professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, who is leading the study at BU.

Breast cancer is not a single disease, but a combination of distinct disease subtypes, with varying risk factors and clinical outcomes. However, the reasons for differences in breast cancer biology and disparities in incidence and mortality rates between white and African-American women are not well understood, and existing studies have not been large enough to provide sufficient statistical power to elucidate genetic factors associated with how breast cancers develop. The size and power of this new study could help address the current lack of scientific understanding.

"Health disparities are a problem of great concern for the NCI and one that we are zeroing in on as evidenced by this grant," said acting director of the NCI, Douglas Lowy, M.D.

This study will seek to identify novel genes and gene pathways that influence breast cancer in African-American women.

This multicenter study will pool data, bio-specimens, and expertise from 18 previous studies of breast cancer among women of African ancestry. The investigators will determine whether genetic variants may be associated with increased risk. Specifically, they will examine:

  • The association between genetic variants and the risk of estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer and estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers

  • How genetic variants affect major breast cancer biological pathways and whether the effects may differ between African-American women and white women

In addition to Palmer, the research team is being led by Wei Zheng, MD, PhD, from Vanderbilt University, Nashville and Christopher Haiman, ScD, from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Experts from five other institutions will join them in gathering information and biospecimens from 20,000 breast cancer cases

Palmer's major research interest is the etiology of breast cancer, with a particular focus on African American women. She was instrumental in designing and implementing the Black Women's Health Study, a cohort study of 59,000 women, and has served as co-investigator of the study since its inception in 1995. She is the director of genetics research in the Black Women's Health Study and has spearheaded efforts to use DNA from study participants in studies of the genetics of breast cancer, other cancers, lupus, uterine fibroids, type 2 diabetes, and sarcoidosis.

She is one of the three multiple principal investigators who organized a collaborative NCI Program Project AMBER (African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk) Consortium, which combines data, germline DNA and tumor tissue samples from four epidemiologic studies of breast cancer in African American women for identification of factors related to specific breast cancer subtypes.


Reference: Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations. Grant Number 1R01CA202981-01

Boston University's Slone Epidemiology Center is a public health research organization which focuses on studying the possible health effects of a wide variety of factors in adults and children. The initial focus on medication use has over the years been expanded to include behavioral, psychosocial, socioeconomic, environmental, and genetic factors.

The National Cancer Institute leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH's efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI website at or call NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER.

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