March 10, 2006

Grant paves way for novel obesity, breast cancer studies

Featured Image

Julie Means-Powell, M.D., is principal investigator on a study being supported by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Grant paves way for novel obesity, breast cancer studies

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 looking 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 among African-American women.

The first study funded under this grant will take a look at the protein levels 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., 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., principal investigator on the proteomics study, is a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer.

“I spend the majority of my time in clinic meeting with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients and treating breast cancer patients whose cancer has moved beyond the breast. I am very motivated to help develop new strategies to identify women at increased risk for breast cancer and methods to reduce the incidence,” said Means-Powell.

Means-Powell will work closely with pulmonologist and critical care specialist Pierre Massion, M.D., assistant professor of Cancer Biology, who 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,” said Massion, referring to the current tool used in the United States to predict a woman's risk for breast cancer. “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 this study funding will allow, but the study 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 preventive 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,” Mathews said.

The two studies benefiting from this funding will both draw on data already collected from persons 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 is being conducted by Vanderbilt in collaboration with Meharry Medical College and the International Epidemiology Institute.