Melissa B. Davis, PhD
New York, New York
Scientific Director, International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes
Director of Health Equity, Englander Institute of Precision Medicine
Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, Department of Surgery
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, New York
Identifying social and biological determinants of breast cancer outcomes in Black women.
Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from their breast cancer than white women. This is due, in part, to a lack of diversity in genomics research—wherein therapies and diagnostics were built based on patients who are predominantly white and of European descent. This propagates a paucity of equitable therapeutic and diagnostic options that serve the broad diversity of cancer patients. These inequities, compounded with inequality of access to healthcare systems and other social determinants of health, are key drivers in racial disparities of cancer outcomes. Dr. Davis and her team uncovered preliminary evidence of ancestry and race-associated differences in the tumor immune microenvironment, particularly in patients with a predominance of African ancestry. The immune cells surrounding a tumor can play a major role in tumor progression and therapeutic response—particularly how tumors respond to new immunotherapies. Dr. Davis and her team aim to better understand how tumor-related immune responses are distinct across ancestry and race groups, how these differences may also be associated with social determinants of health, and how these elements may combine to alter treatment outcomes and influence survival disparities.
Dr. Davis’ team will study the relationships between ancestry, the tumor microenvironment, social determinants of health, and breast cancer survival, in a cohort of 100 patients with breast cancer primarily from the African diaspora. Their analysis will examine the tumor immune microenvironment in these patients; including numbers of specific immune cell types in the tumor, their spatial distribution, and whether they are activated to promote cancer progression. They will also assess immune markers in the blood and how they correlate with the tumor’s immune state. Knowing that external factors (e.g., diet, obesity, environmental exposures, and psychosocial health) can also alter immune responses and inflammation, the team will study how social determinants of health, including neighborhood-level socioeconomic factors, may also influence the tumor microenvironment. This information will be collectively analyzed and assessed in concert with patient outcomes to identify how multiple factors can compound to influence breast cancer disparities.
Melissa B. Davis, PhD serves as Scientific Director of the International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes (ICSBCS), Director of Health Equity for the Englander Institute of Precision Medicine and Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Department of Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, NY. She holds an adjunct faculty appointment in the Department of Population Health Sciences at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, MI.
Dr. Davis received her Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics at the University of Georgia (Athens, GA)) where she completed groundbreaking work in model organisms on developmental functions of steroid signaling during Drosophila metamorphosis. Her postdoctoral training in Functional Genomics and Systems Biology at Yale School of Medicine (Human Genetics) and the University of Chicago (Human Genetics and Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology) led to key elements of the ModENCODE project, showing the genome-wide and tissue-specific dynamics of hormone receptor binding. In addition, her postdoctoral training in Cancer Health Disparities at University of Chicago at the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Disparities led to her current work on biological determinants of cancer health disparities.
She began her current research program with specific focus in breast cancer, expanding into prostate and gynecological cancers in recent years. Dr. Davis is a pioneer in the field of “disparities genomics,” including Davis lab findings that uncovered unique genetic signatures and epigenetic mechanisms, in both breast and prostate tumors of African and African American patients. Specifically, her work indicates that mechanisms associated with aggressive tumor progression, including cell signaling and immunological responses, are associated with genetic ancestry. Her current findings involve utilizing quantified ancestry to unravel genetic vs environmental influences in tumor biology among race/ethnic groups. Dr. Davis has uncovered novel opportunities to develop precision medicine applications in minority populations, including lending her expertise to co-lead the Polyethnic 1000 projects, as an Ethnicity Scholar for the New York Genome Center, a concerted effort to increase knowledge of genomic profiles of underrepresented minority cancer patients. Her work is a prime example of how inclusion of diverse ethnic groups can empower research designs for discovery of novel genetic risk and gene network modifications that result in unique tumor biology.
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