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Investigating breast cancer risk in African-American women

Veronica Meadows Ray, a breast cancer survivor and a member of the Witness Project, a nationwide cancer information program targeting African-Americans, asked Witness Project cofounder Deborah Erwin if a study could be conducted to determine why a family like hers developed several cases of breast cancer, even though they don’t carry the known BRCA gene mutations.

“This grant is an exceptional example of the benefits of connecting the disease concerns of patients and the community with appropriate scientific expertise to initiate novel research.” Deborah Erwin,
Director, Office of Health Disparities, Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences
Cofounder, Witness Project

The inquiry by the Buffalo resident led to a discussion between Erwin and Heather Ochs-Balcom, a genetic epidemiologist in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, that initiated the first national study of genes that increase breast cancer susceptibility in African-American families.

“We are recruiting African-American families with multiple breast cancer survivors to search for new genes that may be responsible for the burden of breast cancer in these families,” says lead investigator Ochs-Balcom. “We will collect DNA from the saliva samples that each woman sends back to us to scan for new genes that may be unique to African Americans, who are known to have more aggressive tumor types and higher overall breast cancer mortality.”  A three-year $431,395 Career Catalyst Award from Susan G. Komen for the Cure will allow for the recruitment of 150 families both locally and nationally.

Through this research, the assistant professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine hopes to find new genes that may help to identify new biologic pathways to study in breast cancer and to see if African-American women have a different distribution of breast cancer tumor types.

“It’s a testament to what can be done when people like Veronica get involved in their community. It all started with her,” she notes.


“The ‘Jewels in Our Genes’ Study: Investigating Why Black Women are at Increased Risk of Early Breast Cancer”

“Influence of a Genetic Variation on Breast Cancer Risk is Subject of Five-Year UB Study”

Heather Ochs-Balcom research profile, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine

School of Public Health and Health Professions School of Public Health and Health Professions