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Duke, NCCU researchers receive $2 million grant to study rare form of breast cancer

<p>Duke's Gayathri Devi (left) and NCCU's&nbsp;Kevin Williams (right) will co-lead an investigation of a&nbsp;rare form of breast cancer.</p>

Duke's Gayathri Devi (left) and NCCU's Kevin Williams (right) will co-lead an investigation of a rare form of breast cancer.

A new grant from the National Cancer Institute will support researchers at Duke and North Carolina Central University in their joint fight against a rare type of cancer.

Collaborators at Duke and NCCU recently received a $2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study cancer disparities amongst different races. Gayathri Devi—associate professor in surgery and head of the Duke Consortium for Inflammatory Breast Cancer Translational Research—and Kevin Williams—associate professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at NCCU—will co-lead an investigation of inflammatory breast cancer. IBC is a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer that is not easily diagnosable.

“[IBC] doesn’t present like most cancers,” Devi said. “There is no solid tumor detectable by a mammogram.”

The population of women affected by IBC is relatively young, specifically affecting young mothers right after pregnancy. This makes diagnosis particularly difficult if physicians are not familiar with the disease, Devi explained.

Due to problems with diagnosis, IBC is usually discovered at stage III, after which it has spread to other tissues and lymph nodes and point treatment options are limited. Additionally, IBC is more likely than other breast cancer types to be “triple negative,” meaning that the cancer cells lack biomarkers that may be targeted by available chemotherapy treatments, Williams said.

Research suggests IBC and other triple negative breast cancers are more prominent in African American women, Devi noted. In addition, minority populations show more aggressive progression of the disease, increased resistance to treatment and worse outcomes.

Devi and Williams said they hope to investigate the unknown genetics that contribute to this disparity. Williams noted that outcome disparities between different races may be influenced by social factors such as access to healthcare, living environments and socioeconomic status.

Steven Patierno, deputy director of the Duke Cancer Institute and a principal investigator for the project, noted that although socioeconomic and sociocultural factors contribute to these disparities, they do not fully account for the difference in cancer incidence between races.

"This cancer health disparity is an extremely relevant and serious issue to the NCCU-DCI partnership, as African Americans comprise 39 percent of the population of Durham and 22 percent of the population of North Carolina," Patierno noted in an article for DCI.

Williams said he hopes to identify biomolecular pathways that lead to IBC’s aggressive and drug-resistant qualities. Once they are better understood, more efficient therapies can be developed against the cancer.

Aside from lab research, the funding enables Devi, Williams and other collaborators at Duke and NCCU to establish educational programs for professional students. The programs will focus on the importance of translational methods, while also encouraging minority students to pursue cancer research. 

Devi said she hopes to develop a model that incorporates classroom learning, community workshops and health group advocacy to reach a wider population of individuals, and to one day incorporate it at other universities nationally.

“Start small with the research projects and education programs at Duke and NCCU,” Devi said.