Sept. 25, 2003 – Vol. 23 No. 1

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    University to lead major study on breast cancer in African-American women

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Leading scholars at the University will use a $9.7 million federal grant to develop a new interdisciplinary approach to study why African-American women have an unusually high rate of breast cancer at an early age.

    The research project, which also will include researchers in Nigeria, will be called the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research and will be based at the University’s Institute for Mind and Biology. Social workers, psychologists, physicians and molecular geneticists together will explore multiple possible causes of breast cancer, including medical causes and the impact of social stress. Researchers expect to work closely with community members in Chicago as they develop the project with a holistic approach, giving residents of the South Side an opportunity to help guide the research process.

    The National Institutes of Health is providing the five-year grant to fund the project, which is part of a nationwide effort to create special research centers to address disparities in health within diverse communities. Only eight such centers were funded.

    “Black women experience a disproportionate burden of premenopausal breast cancer for reasons that remain unknown and understudied,” said center director Sarah Gehlert, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and a specialist on women’s health issues. Unlike white women, who generally develop breast cancer after menopause, black women usually develop breast cancer earlier, and it is more likely to be fatal than the disease is among white women.

    Advances in medicine have provided new information on genes and their relationship to disease, but little information exists on the genetic alterations present in tumors in African-American women and the relationship of those tumors with social factors, Gehlert said.

    Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology, the Director of the Institute for Mind and Biology, and an expert on social interactions and health, will co-direct the project.

    “While women of African heritage may have a higher frequency of cancer-promoting genes, this dramatic health disparity may also have psychosocial origins that regulate such genes,” she said. Potential linkages have been suggested through some animal studies. McClintock’s work, for instance, shows a strong connection between social isolation and the development of mammary tumors at an early age, suggesting that the same effects may occur in human populations.

    Scholars also have known that women in Nigeria are more likely to experience breast cancer at an early age compared to African-American women. New research there, to be conducted at the University of Ibadan, will examine, for instance, if women who move to urban areas and who lack social support are more likely to develop breast cancer.

    “We want to learn the different roles played in breast cancer by genes and the environment by looking at two groups, women in Nigeria and African-American women, who have similar genetics but very different environments,” said Funmi Olopade, Professor in Medicine and a specialist in breast cancer genetics.

    “There are receptors for stress hormones within breast tissue, in addition to ovarian hormones, that may play a key role linking environment and gene regulation,” added Suzanne Conzen, Assistant Professor in Hermatology & Oncology and a specialist in cancer molecular biology.

    Researchers will work with patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer and in addition to studying their medical condition, “take a close look at the environment, not only socio-economic status but where they live, what they eat, what sorts of stresses they endure, whether at home, at work or in their communities,” said Olopade, who grew up in Nigeria. “The great thing about this collaboration is that we can move ‘beyond genetics’ and take a holistic approach to our study of breast cancer.”

    In Chicago, scholars will work with African-American and Nigerian women living in a variety of South Side neighborhoods to see if social factors contribute to stress that may be related to early onset of breast cancer.

    The center also will organize monthly lectures on topics related to breast cancer and will organize a community advisory committee to boost community involvement.

    Researchers expect to work closely with community members and organizations to gain assistance in developing questions, designing studies, collecting data and interpreting results, Gehlert said. In addition to working with the advisory council, the researchers will assemble focus groups, perform in-depth interviews and conduct participant observation projects.

    Gehlert said the approach is called community-based participatory research and added that researchers “expect it to be effective in helping to understand the configuration of social, economic, political and ideological forces from the perspective of the people who experience and shape those forces.”