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Roswell Park to study cancer rates among African-American women

Roswell Park Cancer Institute has been awarded a multimillion dollar grant to find out why young African-American women are more likely to get an aggressive form of breast cancer than young white women.

The study, which is the largest to date on breast cancer in African-American women, will involve 5,500 African-American women from four ongoing studies and 5,500 healthy women as a control group.

The National Cancer Institute awarded $19.5 million to researchers from Roswell Park, the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University and the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to form a team to undertake the five-year investigation.

"You need very large sample sizes so you can compare things in people with cancer and with people who don't have cancer," said Christine Ambrosone, professor of oncology and chairwoman of the Cancer Prevention and Control Department at Roswell Park. "There really is no one study to look at this question."

African-American women under 45 have a five-year survival rate from breast cancer of 76 percent, compared with 88 percent for young white women.

"We've known about these disparities for years, but not what's causing them," Ambrosone said.

Ambrosone said she and fellow investigators Julie Palmer from Boston University and Robert Millikan of North Carolina are passionate about the questions surrounding breast cancer incidence in young black women.

She said they decided to form a team, put their data and samples together, and apply for the competitive funding.

"We can look at genetic and nongenetic factors," she said.

She said overall, women of European descent are more likely to get breast cancer, but African-American women are more likely to get breast cancer before 45, and are more likely to have an aggressive form that is not as treatable.

"We don't really know why," she said.

But researchers have some ideas. One smaller study showed that giving birth reduces the risk of one type of breast cancer that is easier to treat, while increasing the risk of an aggressive cancer, she said. It also indicated that breast-feeding takes that increased risk away.

"We're going to have 10,000 women. We feel we can nail this question once and for all," Ambrosone said.

The investigation will be the first to develop comprehensive models for contributions of genetic and nongenetic risk factors for breast cancer in African-American women.

The goal is to discover genetic, biological, reproductive and behavioral risks for breast cancer subgroups defined by tumor biology and the age at onset of disease.

The study will gather together questionnaires, DNA and tumor samples from the four studies, as well as additional information on the study subjects.

"With our combined sample size, I think we will have some definitive answers," Ambrosone said.

Several people will be hired in Buffalo for the study, and it will provide work for current employees, she said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com