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NIH to launch study of breast cancer risk in black women

It is hoped the large genetic study can explain differences in breast cancer occurrence, severity and death between black and white women.

By Stephen Feller

BETHESDA, Md., July 7 (UPI) -- Overall survival rates for women with breast cancer have improved dramatically in recent decades, but black women are still more likely to die from the disease and are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of it.

In an effort to explain differences in breast cancer occurrence, severity and death among black women, researchers at the National Institutes of Health announced on Thursday they are launching a large study of genetics they hope will lead to better treatment.

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The push for more personalized treatment, or precision medicine, in the United States has focused on collecting large amounts of patient data to analyze genomic and other similarities between people who have diseases.

The idea is to identify the best ways to treat patients with these similarities, and avoid methods of treatment shown to be ineffective based on genetics, environment and individual disease pathology.

Efforts at precision medicine for cancer have found genetic differences in tumors can help doctors predict the treatment likely to be most effective, with recent studies showing greater success in patients for whom precision concepts have been applied.

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While breast cancer survival rates have improved greatly for white and Hispanic women, black women have been shown in numerous studies in recent years to die more often from the disease -- in some cases because they get treatment too late and in others because specific treatments are not as effective with black patients, though researchers remain unsure why.

Other studies have also suggested black women are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive subtypes of breast cancer, such as triple-negative breast cancer being twice as prevalent among black women than white women.

Researchers think the explanation is combination of genetic, environmental and societal factors, including access to healthcare and how long it takes to get that care.

"A number of studies have suggested that genetic factors may influence breast cancer disparities, so we're hopeful that this project can help to shed further light on this matter," Dr. Damali Martin, program director of the genomic epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, said in a press release.

A $12 million grant is funding the Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African Ancestry Populations, which will have researchers comparing the genomes of 20,000 black women with breast cancer to 20,000 genomes of black women without the disease, and then comparing them to those of white women with breast cancer.

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The new study will not seek to enroll new patients, drawing instead on biospecimens, data and resources from 18 previous studies, some of which have been conducted as part of the African-American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African-American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk Consortium and the National Cancer Institute's Cohort Consortium.

"A better understanding of the genetic contributions to differences in breast cancer diagnoses and outcomes among African-Americans may lead to better treatments and better approaches to cancer prevention," said Dr. Robert Croyle, director of NCI's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences.

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