University of Chicago initiates cross disciplinary study of reasons for early onset of deadly breast cancer among African-Americans

September 12, 2003

Leading scholars at the University of Chicago 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 will also 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. It will draw insights from social workers, psychologists, physicians and molecular geneticists, who 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 on a holistic approach that will give residents of the South Side an opportunity to guide the research process.

Their work is financed by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health and is part of a nation-wide 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 pre-menopausal breast cancer for reasons that remain unknown and understudied," said center director Sarah Gehlert, associate professor in the University's 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.

The co-director of the project will be Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology at the University, and an expert on social interactions and health. McClintock is director of the Institute for Mind and Biology.

"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. Those potential linkages have been suggested in 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 have also known that women in Nigeria are more likely to experience breast cancer at an early age compared to American-American women. New research there, to be conducted at the University of Ibadan, will examine, for instance, if women who move to urban areas who lack normal 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 enviroments," said Funmi Olopade, MD, professor of medicine at the University and a specialist in breast cancer genetics.

"The are receptors for stress hormones within breast tissue that may play a key role linking environment and gene regulation," added Suzanne Conzen, MD, assistant professor in Hematology and Oncology at the University 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 just 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.

In order to boost community involvement, the center will organize monthly public lectures on topics related breast cancer. The center will also organize a community advisory committee.

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 us to understand the configuration of social, economic, political, and ideological forces from the perspective of the people who experience and shape those forces."

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