Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Grant

Susan G. Komen A team of researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center has been awarded $1.5 million from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, to help fund two studies targeting women at high risk for developing breast cancer and look for molecular markers in the blood that could indicate increased risk for the disease.

The research will also investigate disparities in modifiable risk factors for breast cancer and may help uncover reasons for the higher mortality from breast cancer among African-American women.

The first study funded under this grant will take a look at the protein level in blood samples from 200 African-American and Caucasian women at high risk and 200 at low risk for developing breast cancer. Serum proteomic profiles will be compared between the two groups. "Our long-term hope is that eventually it may be possible to develop a blood test to identify women at high risk for breast cancer so that measures can be developed to prevent the cancer from occurring or to identify it early enough when it is more readily treatable," said William Blot, Ph.D., professor of Medicine and project coordinator.

According to the American Cancer Society, over 200,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Julie Means-Powell, M.D., a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer and serves as principal investigator on the proteomics study, will work closely with pulmonologist and critical care specialist, Pierre Massion, M.D., to try to identify some of those women who are at risk.

Massion has examined proteomic profiles in lung cancer and will provide scientific support to look for similar profiles in breast cancer. "We hope we can build on the current Gail Model (the current tool used in the United States to predict a woman’s risk for breast cancer)," said Massion. "We will add serum proteomic signatures and genetic signatures to the predictive model," he added.

Each of the investigators agree a blood test to identify women at high risk for breast cancer is not likely in the two years the study funding will allow, but it could provide the first steps toward developing something solid in the future. "A serum profile could help us improve our predictive ability," said Massion.

Means-Powell added that if high-risk women could be identified before diagnosis, it might increase survival rates among African-Americans, where a lower incidence of breast cancer is typically seen, but death rates are generally higher than in Caucasians. "Most clinicians in primary care practice aren’t going to recognize high-risk patients. But if we could better define who is at greater risk, we could save time for providers and save the lives of our patients," said Means-Powell. "In the future, if we could identify profiles of women at high risk then prevention strategies could be utilized to decrease the incidence of breast cancer."

The second study funded by the grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation will examine demographic, lifestyle, medical and genetic profiles for obesity among African-American and Caucasian women. Researchers say the study will provide some of the most extensive data available on the characteristics of obesity, a recognized risk factor for breast cancer among post-menopausal women. Blood samples from 1,000 African-American and 1,000 Caucasian women will be examined to identify biomarkers related to obesity. "We’ll look at about 21 different genes related to the risk of obesity," said Blot.

Charles Mathews, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the energy balance study. "This work will allow us to characterize the environmental and genetic factors that contribute to increased risk for weight gain in adulthood and obesity. Excessive weight gain and obesity are believed to increase risk breast cancer mortality," he said.

The two studies benefiting from this funding will both draw on data already collected from participants enrolled in the Southern Community Cohort Study (SCCS). The ongoing, large-scale study of cancer and other disease disparities is funded by the National Cancer Institute and being conducted by Vanderbilt in collaboration with the Meharry Medical College and International Epidemiology Institute.

An unprecedented 60,000 people have signed on to the SCCS to date, with 90 percent providing blood or DNA samples, making it possible for this type of research to be conducted. The SCCS has set a goal to recruit nearly 100,000 residents of the southern United States, age 40 to 79, approximately 70 percent of whom will be African-American, to try to explain disparities in cancer and care and prevent the disease.

These two studies are the first to take advantage of the infrastructure of the SCCS. "This is a unique cohort in the United States that is extensively studying the underserved, primarily African-Americans, on a large scale. That is a major advantage of this study when trying to reduce the growing disparities in breast cancer mortality," said Massion. Mathews agreed. "The SCCS is a tremendous resource and the funding of these two projects is a great example of how the large epidemiological studies housed at Vanderbilt can contribute to the research mission of the Medical Center," said Mathews.

Blot said Vanderbilt is fortunate to be working with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. "I hope this will begin a long-term relationship for us," he said.

Wendy Mason, CHES, director, Project Management with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation said adding studies that leverage the SCCS population could help answer questions about differences in outcomes seen between African-American and Caucasian women with breast cancer and identify women who are at a higher risk for developing the disease.

"Addressing these issues will not only provide valuable scientific data, it will lead to the reduction of disparities among U.S. women at risk for and being treated for breast cancer."

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