Every year at our annual Symposium and Awards Luncheon, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation honors one researcher’s groundbreaking contributions in their field with the Jill Rose Award for Scientific Excellence. At this year’s event on October 20, BCRF is proud to recognize Dr. Olufunmilayo (Funmi) I. Olopade.
“I was surprised and very happy to learn I was getting the Jill Rose Award because it is so prestigious,” she said. “So many prominent breast cancer researchers around the world have won it and it’s an honor to be in their company.”
Dr. Olopade, a native of Nigeria, is globally renowned as an expert in risk assessment and individualized treatment for the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Her work has advanced early detection, treatment, and prevention of breast cancer in women at high risk for the disease.
BCRF recently spoke to Dr. Olopade—a BCRF investigator since 2001—about her accomplishments in the field, “inclusive excellence,” and the importance of research.
How did you use the first grant you received from BCRF?
I’ve always really been interested in genetic justice, and funding from BCRF has allowed me to pursue it. I know that a lot of breast cancer patients are not comfortable with genetics because of the idea that genetics could be used to discriminate. And genetics might be used to exclude people. So, I’ve been very, very conscious about the racial differences and the biases in the research that my team and I do.
But because I work on the south side of Chicago, I also know that it’s not all about whether a patient is black, white, or brown—it’s really about how can we help you when you face a diagnosis of breast cancer. And that kind of research is not something that would be funded by the National Cancer Institute. It’s not sexy enough to say, “I want to find out if Nigerian women have BRCA-1 mutation,” or “I want to treat women in Nigeria with breast cancer because they have no access to treatment.”
When I found out that BCRF was going to fund me—and that were no conditions attached to that money—the first study I wanted to do was to go to Nigeria and treat women with breast cancer who had been providing me with genetic samples. It had been so disheartening to learn that these women later died of the disease. Their family members would say to us, “You got our mother’s blood and the doctor never wanted to talk to us again because our mother had no money and did not have access to treatment.”
So, I used my first BCRF grant to see whether I could develop a clinical trials platform in Nigeria so these women would have a chance to be part of a global network, and to really figure out how to treat and cure breast cancer. Women of African descent are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive breast cancers, and at a younger age, than white women. How do we screen this type of woman for breast cancer? How do we treat her when she gets breast cancer?
BCRF’s support over the years has been so amazing in not just helping us develop clinical trials in Nigeria but also training people there to conduct trials. Today, the aggressive breast cancer that was not treatable is suddenly treatable, and women are surviving. This never would have been possible without that first grant from BCRF.
Ending racial disparities in breast cancer is also a big part of your work in the US. What issues did you observe when you first came here?
One big problem was the lack of diversity in clinical trials. In cities like New York and Chicago, I saw that patients at public hospitals were predominantly immigrants. Some were poor, some were middle class. And they didn’t get to participate in breast cancer clinical trials because we take our clinical trials to the fanciest hospitals. I thought, Why do we have two Americas where some people have more than they need and some people don’t have anything?
I started talking about the issue with Laura [Dr. Laura J. Esserman, another BCRF investigator], who has become a close friend. I learned that when Laura started her work in California, she had only 48 Black women participating in a clinical trial. I would say, “Laura, why do you stay in California to look for Black women when you should come to me in Chicago?”
Today, I’m working with Laura on the WISDOM [Women Informed to Screen Depending on Measures of risk] study, which aims to understand if breast cancer screening can be improved by personalizing each woman’s mammogram schedule. We have nearly 3,000 women in Chicago participating, and a quarter of them are Black. These are women who want to be part of a solution.
Why is research so important to move the field forward?
Research is the only way to do so. Take vaccines, which I absolutely love. When I was young, I got vaccinated against all the really dreadful childhood diseases—polio, chicken pox, smallpox. And we overcame these diseases because research gave us vaccines. But it seems as if we have forgotten that. Today, thanks to research, we have vaccine that will basically eliminate HPV as a cause of cervical cancer and head and neck cancer. But people are not getting the vaccines they need, so we have to think about ways to prioritize vaccination.
An advance I’m excited about right now is artificial intelligence, which will really propel breast cancer research forward. One of the new collaborations that I’m developing with colleagues through BCRF is focused on how artificial intelligence can improve breast cancer prediction. I’m really looking forward to gaining more information to help women be empowered to prevent breast cancer and get diagnosed early when the disease is most treatable.
What is the most fulfilling part of your work?
I teach in an academic medical center, so I’d say the most fulfilling part of my work is being able to impart knowledge to the next generation. But I also love having a global platform to mobilize solidarity for women to be together and to find solutions for breast cancer. This includes women like me who went to medical school in Africa but then didn’t have the resources or the infrastructure there to treat breast cancer. This is what I mean when I talk about inclusive excellence: We all come from different places, but we can do this work in solidarity. BCRF’s funding has made it happen, and it’s why I’m so happy they honored me with the Jill Rose Award.
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