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Black women more likely to die from breast cancer


A new study has discovered considerable differences between the breast tissue cells of white and black women, explaining why black women are more likely to die of breast cancer.

The research – from the journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology – indicates that altering the current diagnosis and treatment strategies might help address this disparity.

Black women are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, and consequently die from the disease.

According to scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys, there were significant differences between white and black women in the way DNA repair genes are expressed, in both healthy breast tissue and cancerous tumors – which also influences how fast cancer cells in the breast can grow.

Speaking to Metro, Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D. an assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, said: “What we’re seeing here is a tangible molecular difference in how these cells repair damaged DNA – a critical factor in the development of cancer – which affects how cells grow and reproduce in tumors.

“The way each human being responds to cancer treatment is influenced by so many internal and external factors that are unique to each of us.

“The scientific community has to confront this and invest time and money into understanding it, because everybody deserves care that is tailored to their molecular makeup as closely as possible.”

Black women’s cells repair DNA differently to white women’s cells, meaning they will react differently to cancer treatments.

DNA repair regulates processes throughout the cell, ensuring they can recover from mistakes that naturally happen during DNA replication, or in response to external factors such as stress.

Cancer cells often acquire genetic changes that make it impossible to repair DNA, so these cells become resistant to treatment.

Svasti said: “We have already seen how defects in DNA repair lead to treatment resistance in breast cancer. But until now, there weren’t studies to measure the degree to which this differs in Black versus white women or what’s driving that difference.”

By examining healthy and tumorous tissue from 185 black women, and comparing it to samples from white women, Svasti’s team found eight genes driving DNA repair, which are expressed differently in black women.

They found consistent molecular differences in the signals determining how fast cells can grow – not just in cancer cells, but even in healthy tissue.

Svasti explained: “This is so important because if the normal tissue is different at the molecular level based on race or ethnicity, then everything we understand about how each of us responds to cancer treatment is going to be different as well.”

Among black women, breast cancer makes up about a third of all cancer diagnoses, with the breast cancer being the most common.

Svasti thinks societal factors – namely racism and socioeconomic inequality – could be impacting black women’s bodies at a cellular level.

The research team’s findings suggest a change in approach to treating breast cancer in black women could significantly improve outcomes.

Svasti said: “Our lived experience can change the molecular biology of our cells. There is no current clinical diagnostic that predicts response to therapy for breast cancer patients that’s not based on data from white people. We hope our research will highlight the need to study cancer in different racial and ethnic groups more closely and improve outcomes for historically marginalised patients.”

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