Breast cancer affects people across all different backgrounds, but Black women in particular are more apt to get aggressive forms of the disease. They’re also more apt to die from it. New research aims to better understand this so that treatment can be more effective.
Dr. Harikrishna Nakshatri of Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is leading the research, which is being funded with a $1.3 million grant from a Department of Defense breast cancer research program. The study will allow Nakshatri to continue to examine biomarkers in Black women’s breasts to determine if they are impacting the disproportionate numbers.
Nakshatri says, “The vast majority of people think of health disparities from the point of view of socio-economic factors, but we are looking at the biologic factors or the biologic basis of health disparities. This doesn’t account for all cases of health disparity, but there is a certain section where it may inform treatment.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that Black and white women get breast cancer at similar rates, but while death rates are going down across the board, Black women are still 40% more likely than white women to die from it.
White women are more apt to be diagnosed early. However, Black women are more likely to get triple-negative breast cancer, which is often aggressive and returns after treatment. Scientists are trying to determine why some women are more apt to get it, which will help them find better ways to treat it.
Nakshatri’s research has found that breast tissue in Black women contains more of a cell type called PZP than that of white women. These cells go up in number in white women who develop breast cancer, but they are naturally at higher levels in Black women. Nakshatri is trying to determine if breast cancer can originate in these cells and if they help the cancer grow.
He’s also looking at a genetic mutation called duffy, which is found in women with sub-Saharan Africa ancestry.
He explains, “That mutation is embedded in this population because it protects them against malarial infection. Current research has shown that when women who carry this mutation develop breast cancer, it tends to be much more aggressive.”
Nakshatri looked at DNA from 100 Black women and found this mutation in 40% of them. He also compared normal breast tissue from duffy carriers to cells from Black women who don’t carry the mutation. This found that duffy carriers already have signaling molecules for cancer initiation at higher levels.
The hope is that understanding this better will help determine if different treatment is needed or if conventional treatment with some variations may be appropriate. It also may help determine the best drugs to use.
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Nakshatri says, “We will be able to identify specific treatments that will help Black women recover from this vicious form quickly and in a less toxic way.”
This research is in still in the preclinical stage, but Nakshatri hopes the findings will ultimately lead to clinical studies.