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Breast Cancer Genetics in Black Women Being Studied by NCI

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The biological factors that predispose black women to breast cancer have long been overlooked by researchers—but that’s about to change.

In July, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute teamed up to fund a research project aiming to identify genetic factors that may underlie breast cancer disparities in black women. It is called The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African Ancestry Populations, and according to the NIH, it is the largest study ever to investigate how genetic and biological factors contribute to breast cancer risk among black women.

Though survival rates for women with breast cancer have been steadily improving over the past several decades, these improvements have not been shared equally—black women are more likely to die of the disease, noted the NIH.

The study hopes to tackle why black women are more likely than white women to be diagnosed with aggressive sub-types of breast cancer, such as inflammatory breast cancer, which, according to the NCI, is more common and diagnosed at younger ages in black women than in white women. It also hopes to figure out why the rate of triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive sub-type, is twice as high in black women compared to white women.

“This effort is about making sure that all Americans–no matter their background–reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine,” said Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., acting director of NCI, in a press release.

According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, in women under 45, breast cancer is more common in black women than white women. The Susan G. Komen center states that the median age of diagnosis for black women is 58-years-old, compared to 62-years-old for white women.

The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African Ancestry Populations study will build on years of research cooperation among investigators who are part of the African American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) Consortium, and the NCI Cohort Consortium. These investigators will share biospecimens, data, and resources from 18 previous studies.

The NIH noted that the genomes of 20,000 black women with breast cancer will be compared with those of 20,000 black women without breast cancer. The genomes will also be compared to those of white women who have breast cancer. The researchers will investigate inherited genetic variations that are associated with breast cancer risk in black women compared to white women.

Past studies suggest that the disparities are the result of a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and societal factors, including access to health care. The agencies are counting on this new study to help advance the understanding of the social and biological causes that lead to disparities in this cancer and are hoping it leads to better treatments and better approaches to prevention. It is funded through a $12 million grant by the National Cancer Institute.

In October 2015, the American Cancer Society changed their recommendation of when women should start getting mammograms. It is now recommended that women with an average risk of breast cancer start mammography at age 45 as opposed to the previous recommendation of age 40. However, these new guidelines were met with criticism by organizations like the Black Women’s Health Imperative, which urges that black women should get screened earlier since they have a higher risk of getting the disease earlier.