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UNC, BU, Roswell Land $19.3M for African-American Cancer Study

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A research partnership project between the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and Boston University will use a $19.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study how genetics and environment interplay in breast cancer cases among younger African-American women.

The study continues ongoing efforts based at UNC's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to study why African-American women under the age of 45 are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive types of breast cancer and have poorer outcomes than American women of European ancestry in the same age groups, according to UNC, BU, and Roswell.

In that age group, African-American women have a 76 percent five-year survival rate compared to an 88 percent survival rate for white women, according to the most recently-available data, according to UNC.

The grant will pull together breast cancer cases from four ongoing studies — the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, the Women's Circle of Health Study, the Black Women's Health study, and the Multiethnic Cohort Study, and will involve more than 5,000 participants.

"Our aim is to explore the potential biologic, environmental and epidemiologic causes of this difference in cancer incidence," Robert Millikan, a professor of cancer epidemiology at UNC, said in a statement today. "Our previous studies and those of our colleagues have suggested hypotheses that we will be investigating with this larger group of patients."

Millikan elaborated on the research later today in an email to GenomeWeb Daily News, stating that the partners will use DNA sequencing and study gene-environment interactions, and they will "evaluate previously identified genome-wide association study findings that were primarily discovered in whites and see how the results compare in African-Americans.

"We anticipate that there will be interplay among inherited factors and the environment as it relates to breast cancer," Millikan stated.

Shelley Earp, director of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said that over the past decade Millikan and other UNC researchers have shown that breast cancer consists of five different sub-types.

"Their work initiated the exploration of black/white differences in breast cancer sub-types. The current study will assemble a population of African-American patients large enough to thoroughly examine the range of risk factors and genes that could be associated with the different breast cancer subtypes," Earp explained.

The researchers will focus on studying the different sub-types of breast cancer, and will place an emphasis on the most aggressive types.

The partners also will study a range of different characteristics and traits including genetic susceptibility; gene-environment interactions; reproductive history; hormonal factors; body size; early life and adult physical activity; and other risk factors to find out how they are involved in these different cancer subtypes.

The collaborative studies "will be the first to develop comprehensive models for contributions of genetic and non-genetic risk factors for breast cancer subtypes in African-American women," BU and Roswell said in a joint release.

The funding will be spread among the different core resources at each of the institutions involved in the study, Millikan noted in his e-mail to GWDN.