Nikita Wright, Ph.D. and Maureen Murphy, Ph.D.
<p><strong>Their big idea: </strong>Wright, a student at Georgia State University and Murphy, a professor and program leader of the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, are digging into why African-American women fare worse with breast cancer.</p>
<p><strong>Why it’s important: </strong>Despite the steady decrease in breast cancer deaths, African-American women are still hit harder than other populations. They’re more likely to die from breast cancer at an early age and more likely to get aggressive forms of the disease. Doctors are a bit stumped about why this happens but Wright and Murphy might have some answers. </p>
<p>Earlier this year, Wright’s team was the first to make a new connection: When African-American breast cancer patients received chemotherapy before surgery—called neoadjuvant chemotherapy—it was less likely that their tumors would return. “Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is often given to patients with large tumors or locally advanced breast cancer,” Wright explains. “Our study encourages doctors to administer it to African-American patients <em>regardless</em> of their tumor size or presence of locally advanced disease. Considering that African-American women have a higher risk of tumors coming back, this could address the disparity that exists in breast cancer.” </p>
<p>Wright’s team also found that African-American women with triple negative breast cancer who had high levels of nuclear KIFC1, a type of biomarker, tended to die sooner or had poorer survival rates. Interestingly, white women weren’t affected by it, whether their levels were high or low. “This was the first study to find a genetic racial disparity in breast cancer,” she says. “And now that we know about this difference, we can use drugs that address this biomarker, potentially saving thousands of lives.”</p>
<p>Murphy’s work—which is independent of Wright’s—found that premenopausal African-American women with a variant of the p53 gene had an 80 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer. “One out of 40 African-American women have this variant, and this study was the first to make the connection and could potentially explain why African-American women are more likely to get more aggressive cancers,” she says. </p>
<p>The link is a huge breakthrough: “As far as we can tell, p53 is the first gene to sense that a cell is dividing when it is not supposed to, and it shuts that cell down,” she says. “It also controls most of the response to conventional chemotherapy and radiation therapy, so if you have a tumor, and that tumor has mutated or deleted p53, then you have a much, much poorer prognosis.” </p>
<p>The next step is finding a drug that specifically targets it. “We found two drugs that kill tumors with the variant well in mouse models, so we hope to move to human testing soon.”</p>