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VICC leads study on high breast cancer incidence and mortality rates in African-American women

July 6, 2016

A cancer research consortium headed by investigators at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) and two other institutions, today received $12 million in federal funding to help determine why African-American women die at a higher rate and have more aggressive breast cancer than white women.  The grant, which was awarded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, is based on the premise that having a better understanding of the biology–and, in particular, the genetics–of breast cancer in African-American women will lead to better prevention and treatment.

“Health disparities are a problem of great concern for the NCI and one that we are zeroing in on as evidenced by this grant,” said Douglas Lowy, M.D., acting director of the NCI.

“This crucial federal funding support will enable a trans-institutional collaboration between VICC cancer investigators and their colleagues at other major institutions to explore the biological and genetic underpinnings of breast cancer in African-American women who have been suffering disproportionately from this disease,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., executive vice president for Research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and director of VICC.

Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., MPH

Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., MPH

The research team is being led by Principal Investigator Wei Zheng, M.D., Ph.D., MPH, VICC, Nashville; Christopher Haiman, Sc.D., University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and Julie Palmer, Sc.D., MPH, Boston University.

Zheng conceived the study and helped recruit other prominent investigators to form the consortium.

“Breast cancer exacts a particularly heavy toll on African-American women. This study will generate enormous resources and greatly expand our research capacity to illuminate the biological and genetic basis of this common cancer,” said Zheng, the Anne Potter Wilson Professor of Medicine, director of the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center and chief of the Division of Epidemiology. “I am truly privileged to work alongside so many outstanding researchers in discovering innovative answers to ease this burden.”

Breast cancer is not a single disease, but a combination of distinct disease subtypes with varying risk factors and clinical outcomes. However, the reasons for differences in breast cancer biology and disparities in incidence and mortality rates between white women and African-American women are not well understood, and existing studies have not been large enough to provide sufficient statistical power to determine how and why breast cancers develop. The size and power of this new study could help address the current lack of scientific understanding.

This study will seek to identify novel genes and gene pathways which will significantly improve knowledge of breast cancer biology, particularly for African-American women.

The multicenter study will pool data, biospecimens, and expertise from 18 previous studies of breast cancer among women of African ancestry.  The investigators will determine whether genetic variants may be associated with increased risk. Specifically, they will examine:

  • The association between genetic variants and the risk of estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer and estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers
  • How genetic variants affect major breast cancer biological pathways and whether the effects may differ between African-American women and white women

In addition to researchers from VICC, Boston University and the University of Southern California, experts from 10 other institutions will gather information and biospecimens from 20,000 breast cancer cases.

Other VICC investigators include Jirong Long, Ph.D., Qiuyin Cai, M.D., Ph.D., Bill Blot, Ph.D., Bingshan Li, M.D., Ph.D., Carlos Arteaga, M.D., and Thomas Stricker, M.D., Ph.D.


Reference:  Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations. Grant Number 1R01CA202981-01.

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is one of only two National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in Tennessee and 45 in the country to achieve this special distinction. Its 300 faculty members generate more than $140 million in annual federal research funding, ranking it among the top 10 centers in the country in competitive grant support, and its clinical program sees more than 6,000 new cancer patients each year. VICC is a member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), a nonprofit alliance of the world’s leading cancer centers dedicated to improving cancer care for patients everywhere.

The National Cancer Institute leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, visit the NCI website at or call NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER.