Researcher looks at molecular changes for clues to disparities in breast cancer outcomes

It’s a figure that stands out. Black women have a 36% higher breast cancer mortality rate than other races in spite of having a similar incidence to White women. Black women also are both more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age than White women and have double the rate of the aggressive, harder-to-treat triple negative breast cancer.

There’s ongoing debate about how much of these disparities is due to social determinants of health, such as access to health care, and how much is caused by biology, notes MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher Peggi Angel, Ph.D. One hypothesis is that chronic social and economic stressors result in ancestry-dependent molecular changes that create a tumor permissive tissue microenvironment in normal breast tissue, she said, citing findings of her team’s recent study published in Frontiers in Oncology

Angel, an analytical chemist by training, is interested in what’s happening at the molecular level. Her recent study with her graduate student Denys Rujchanarong looked at normal breast tissue tagged as at-risk for breast cancer, according to the Gail Model, which assigns an estimated risk of breast cancer based on personal factors, such as age, the age at start of menstruation and age at birth of first child, and saw associations between socioeconomic stressors and specific N-glycosylation patterns in Black and White women.

N-glycosylation is a metabolic process of creating a sugar modification on a protein structure. The research was an initial step toward linking molecular markers to socioeconomic stress, Angel said.

“We tried to look at differences in social status among Black women and White women and compare that to molecular factors that might be predictive,” she said. “I think this is such a needed area of research because it is really complicated, and there’s clearly some molecular changes that could be linked to geographical origin.”

She noted that it’s important to start looking at differences in breast tissue before cancer arises.

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