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Chi-Chen Hong, PhD
Department of Cancer Prevention and Control
Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
Buffalo, New York
Goal: To understand why African American women are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) than white women.
Impact: Drs. Hong and Ambrosone are investigating the types of immune cells that are in and around breast tumors from African American and white women and whether immune cell populations affect tumor aggressiveness. Their findings may lead to more personalized approaches to breast cancer treatment.
What’s next: To further validate their pilot findings, the team will increase the enrollment of white women in the Women’s Circle of Health Study (WCHS), a large epidemiological study specifically established to investigate breast cancer disparities. The goal is to match the same number of white women to black women within a geographic area in order to do a more in-depth analysis.
TNBC is an aggressive disease that disproportionately affects women of African ancestry. Why this disparity exists is not well understood. Drs. Hong and Ambrosone are studying breast tumor tissues from both African American and white women to identify factors that may influence the incidence of TNBC in African American women.
Full Research Summary
Research area: Identifying factors that influence the incidence of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) in African American women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with this aggressive subtype of breast cancer than white women.
Impact: While TNBC accounts for less than 20 percent of breast cancer diagnosed in the US, women of African American descent are two times more likely to be diagnosed with TNBC than white women. Currently, it is not clear what accounts for this disparity. Drs. Hong and Ambrosone are investigating several biological and lifestyle factors that may influence the incidence of TNBC in African American women. Their work could inform new strategies to reduce racial disparities and improve survival for all women with breast cancer.
Current investigation: The team has been studying immune cells in and around breast tumors and how they differ between more aggressive and less aggressive tumor subtypes and between African American and white women. Their preliminary studies suggested that tumors from African-American women tend to have immune cells that are more dysfunctional in mounting an attack on tumor cells and are associated with poorer survival.
What they’ve learned so far: Drs. Hong and Ambrosone found that tumors from African American women have higher levels of exhausted T cells for all subtypes of breast cancer, and that this is associated with poorer survival. Initial results from another study showed that immune markers are higher in the stromal compartment–the tissue that surrounds the tumor–compared to the tumor.
What’s next: The researchers and their colleagues will continue their current investigation and expand it by enrolling more white women. With this larger sample size, they will measure a comprehensive panel of proteins in tumors that characterize exhausted immune cells to determine if they are, in fact, more prevalent in tumors from African-American women than white women and if they are related to poorer survival outcomes.
Dr. Chi-Chen Hong is an Associate Member in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control within the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at Roswell Park. Dr. Hong's research is focused on breast cancer etiology, survivorship, and prognosis. Specifically, her interests are on the influence of lifestyle, comorbidity, genetics, and immune factors. She has an ongoing prospective cohort study of early stage breast cancer patients to examine issues in breast cancer survivorship, and with colleagues at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Rutgers University is principal investigator of a study examining the role of obesity and related comorbidities, including asthma and type 2 diabetes, and their management on quality-of-life and breast cancer survival outcomes among African American women, and to elucidate key pathways mediating these associations.