North Carolina Central University researcher Dr. Kevin P. Williams, along with a team of students and research scientists, spends hours in the lab each week investigating molecular changes in tumors in search of breast cancer’s most deadly secrets. Yet Williams and his team are equally committed to public education about an especially aggressive type of cancer known as inflammatory breast cancer, or IBC, which disproportionally impacts African American women.
“We want to raise awareness about this subtype of breast cancer because it is misdiagnosed a lot,” said Williams, an associate professor at the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise at NCCU. “A lot of clinicians are not aware of IBC, and yet it is the most fatal.”
According to the American Cancer Society, inflammatory breast cancer differs from other types in several ways. Rather than manifesting as a lump, a woman with IBC might notice red splotches and rough skin on her breast. It strikes people earlier in life – at an average age of 52 – and is more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. In a majority of cases, the cancer will have spread to other parts of the body before it is diagnosed.
Williams’ twin interests of research and health education got a boost recently when the National Cancer Institute funded a four–year, $2 million grant that allows minority graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to investigate cancer molecules in the lab while also being trained in cancer disparities research, including outreach and education for African Americans. The grant funds the Cancer Disparities Translational Research Partnership between NCCU and Duke University, which aims to uncover the underlying causes of inflammatory breast and prostate cancer and train new minority researchers in the field.
“In order to develop treatments that reduce breast cancer disparities and eventually cure aggressive breast cancers, we desperately need to increase our understanding of how biology and genetics impact aggressive breast cancers in young African American women,” Williams said.
The American Cancer Society reports that breast cancer deaths in African American women are 42 percent higher than in white women, despite similar rates of diagnosis. While differences in preventative care, environment and health habits are considered factors, molecular activity is another likely cause. As a designated institution serving health disparity–affected populations, NCCU will engage with campus and surrounding communities as the project progresses, he said.
The NCI grant follows an award announced last September 2016 by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to establish a graduate training and public health initiative that also focuses on breast cancer disparities.
“The Komen grant focuses on training of graduate students, in particular minority students, with the goal of erasing health disparities by bringing in new, eager researchers,” Williams said. “The training really covers not just basic research but also community outreach and patient navigation to raise awareness of this subtype of breast cancer.”
Both the NCI and Komen grants will fund what is known as translational research, interdisciplinary collaboration aims to impact public health through prevention, diagnosis and treatment, as well as research, Williams said. The $405,000 grant from Komen was part of a $2.9 million grant package awarded to NCCU and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Williams and his team are already making headway in the effort to learn more about IBC. A collaborative research project with Gayathri Devi, associate professor of surgery at Duke University, has shown a relationship between inflammatory breast cancer and the common household chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, used in clear plastics such as water bottles, but also catheters, drip lines and other types of medical equipment.