African-American women’s susceptibility to more aggressive forms of breast cancer has long puzzled the medical community, but now, research from Morehouse Medical School has cracked the code on the connection and paved the way for future advances — and possibly a cure.
“Morehouse School of Medicine focuses our research on signature areas that disproportionately affect minority communities including cardiometabolic diseases, HIV/AIDS, neurological disorders and cancer,” said Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., dean and executive vice president of Morehouse School of Medicine. “Dr. [Veena] Rao’s discovery is in line with our mission to better understand health inequities and developing a cure.”
The research, led by Morehouse professor Dr. Veena Rao and published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, focused on young, African-American women with triple negative breast cancers and the function of a cluster of genes called BRCA genes. When operating normally, these genes repair cell damage and keep breast cells growing normally. But sometimes, these genes contain abnormalities or mutations that are passed from generation to generation, causing them to malfunction and increase the risk of breast cancer. Rao’s research uncovered a critical link between the BCRA genes and the increased incidence of aggressive breast cancer in Black women that has cleared the way for the future discovery of biomarkers that can help predict disease progression and provide further explanation for the connection between breast cancer and Black women.
“We are showing for the first time that the exclusive non-nuclear distribution of mutant BRCA1 and BRCA1a proteins cause deregulated Ubc9, resulting in breast cancer” said Rao. “BRCA1 serves as a master switch which, by turning off or on Ubc9 binding, controls estrogen receptor activity and cell growth. This discovery will change the current understanding of how BRCA1 functions as a tumor suppressor by bringing in novel concepts and new directions.”
Although white women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to develop aggressive breast cancers with lesser-known treatments and more likely to die from the disease, says the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death among African-American women and more than 6,000 African-American women are estimated to die of breast cancer this year.
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