UofL students seek answers to breast cancer disparities in minority populations

October 25, 2011

Understanding the influence of genetics, lifestyle and environment on breast cancer in minority populations is the focus of research for University of Louisville School of Public Health & Information Sciences (SPHIS) doctoral students Avonne Connor, Nandita Das and Stephanie Denkhoff.

Through a SPHIS Department of Epidemiology & Population Health (EPH) training program established with a grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the students are building on the National Cancer Institute funded work of two faculty mentors, Kathy B. Baumgartner, PhD, and Richard Baumgartner, PhD. The primary purpose of the training program is to transition trainees into mentored dissertation and post-doctoral research - testing hypotheses on racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic differences in breast cancer risk and prognosis.

The Komen grant provides the students with tuition, health insurance and a stipend for two years. Graduate students in the training program must have an interest in learning the reasons for differences in breast cancer rates among minority populations, and seek to translate research findings into clinical and public health practice to eliminate disparities.

Kathy B. Baumgartner, a Bucks for Brains cancer epidemiologist, is the principal investigator for the New Mexico component of the 4-Corners Breast Cancer Study (4-CBCS), a study she began while on faculty at the University of New Mexico. The study of 5,000 women with and without breast cancer was conducted in the Four Corners Southwest states. This study explores the differences between breast cancer incidence rates for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women. The main focus of the study was on the relationship between breast cancer and obesity.

Genetics and other lifestyle exposures also were considered, including diet and physical activity. Now, the students are evaluating pre-collected DNA samples of women involved in the 4-CBCS. Through this research, they are assessing genetic variations that may predispose Hispanic women to have a greater risk of breast cancer.

Additionally, Kathy Baumgartner is the lead investigator on the Long Term Quality of Life Study (LTQOL) - a 12-15 year follow-up of survival and quality of life for almost 1,600 women who participated in one of the New Mexico Women's Health Study (NMWHS), a study conducted from 1992 to 1996 that examined differences in the risk of breast cancer for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women. All three Komen trainees have worked on the LTQOL, conducting phone interviews with women who are breast cancer survivors, as well as women who do not have a history of breast cancer. Women were asked to rate their quality of life based on several factors, including general health, limitations due to physical and emotional well-being, and the physical and mental impact of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Avonne Connor is the first SPHIS student to graduate with a doctoral degree in cancer epidemiology and is the first doctoral student to graduate with this specialization across all institutions in Kentucky. Connor examined whether genes associated with obesity and diabetes influence the disparity in breast cancer risk between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women.

Nandita Das' dissertation is using data from the Health Eating Activity & Lifestyle Study - initiated in 1996 by Richard Baumgartner, chair, SPHIS Department of EPH. Das is investigating whether genes associated with folate metabolism influence the associations of chemotherapy and dietary intake of folate with breast cancer survival.

Stephanie Denkhoff has served as study coordinator for the LTQOL study, and her dissertation will examine the influence of genetics and environmental factors on the development of breast tumor subtypes that differ among ethnic groups.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in women, and approximately 3,600 women are diagnosed each year in Kentucky. Risk factors that explain ethnic and racial disparities in breast cancer rates may also be related to prognosis and survival.
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University of Louisville

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