$6.5 Million Study Targets High Breast Cancer Deaths in Black Women

By Elizabeth Fernandez

Hope S. Rugo, MD

African American women have lower breast cancer survival rates than white women and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) scientists are studying why – as well as how to increase their life spans.

Hope Rugo
Hope Rugo, MD. Photo by Brooke Duthie

The lead researchers are Lisa M. Coussens, PhD, professor in the UCSF pathology department and co-director of the Program in Cancer Immunity and Microenvironment; and Hope S. Rugo, MD, professor of medicine and director of UCSF Breast Oncology and Clinical Trials Education.

The two researchers, along with E. Shelley Hwang, MD, chief of breast surgery at Duke University, have been awarded a $6.5 million grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure for the project, considered a novel approach to treating the most aggressive breast cancer tumors.

Even though more white women have breast cancer in the United States, black women are more likely to die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. The discrepancy was previously attributed to differences in access to screening, diagnosis and treatment. But more recently researchers have found that younger black women are more likely to develop the most aggressive type of breast tumors – basal-type or triple-negative – which are more likely to be resistant to standard cancer treatment.

In Coussens’ lab, mice have responded to a drug that blocks a specific type of immune cell seen in these aggressive cancers when given in combination with chemotherapy, significantly slowing tumor growth, halting the spread of cancer to the lungs and prolonging survival. Preliminary results, the researchers say, indicate that this drug causes few side effects and could be highly effective with advanced-staged tumors. The immune cell is called a tumor associated macrophage, or TAM; an increased number of these cells in tumors has been tied to more aggressive cancer.

Targeting TAMS is a completely new way of treating cancer, the researchers say, with a potential to prolong survival and cure chemotherapy resistant disease. The treatment attempts to teach the immune system to better support the ability of chemotherapy to kill tumor cells.

The clinical trial will be conducted at UCSF as well as at Vanderbilt and Duke universities. Patient advocates are integral to the research study at all three institutions; the lead patient advocate is Susan Sampson from UCSF.  

“This is an exciting new way to treat the most aggressive breast cancers,’’ Rugo said, “and we are hopeful that these studies will change our approach to cancer treatment.’’