Boston University School of Medicine researchers have been awarded a $3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to fund a project exploring the effects of obesity on breast cancer in African-American women, according to a Wednesday press release.
BU School of Public Health professor Julie Palmer, Senior Epidemiologist at the Slone Epidemiology Center and BUSM professor Gerald Denis will use the five-year grant to investigate and identify critical factors that may be related to breast cancer, according to the researchers’ grant application. The research will be used to build preventative actions against breast cancer.
“Obesity and breast cancer are a serious public health concern,” Denis said. “… It’s a link that not many people understand.”
Researchers will study the profiles of African-American women affected by breast cancer, both obese and not obese, with varying levels of metabolic health, Denis said.
“We might be able to find some sort of signature risk or some sort of markers, that would be very informative of women who are at risk of breast cancer in the future,” he said.
The grant money awarded will be used to fund a team of 11 or 12 investigators with different fields of expertise. This team of specialists will be vital to the success of such a large-scale research project, Denis said.
“It’s really the team approach that is made possible by this award,” he said. “It’s harder to do this with each person in isolation, but by pooling our effort and our excitement, we really help each other along.”
Denis said he hopes the research will promote a shared sense of community among patients affected by breast cancer and obesity.
“We have to think about it and pull together for the sake of the community,” he said. “When you talk about diabetes and cancer, to suffer those things alone is the worst, so one of the major goals of this project is to get everybody on the same page and feeling like we’re all in it together.”
The grant application was a six-week process through the National Institutes of Health. Denis and Palmer completed most of the writing for the application, but were aided by many other contributors, Palmer said.
NIH officials could not be reached for comment due to the government shutdown.
The goals of the project are to create stronger forms of breast cancer prevention and develop a better understanding of the biology that plays into the illness, Palmer said.
“I want to help find out why African-American women are getting these types of breast cancer more than everyone else, because if we can find out it will probably give us clues to prevention,” she said. “As an epidemiologist, my first goal is trying to identify things that can be used to prevent cancer, but a secondary goal — and very important — is also just understanding the biology better so that better treatments can be developed.”
Denis and Palmer began working together on the research project about a year ago, Palmer said. As a researcher, Denis’s work focuses on obesity-associated cancers. Palmer and her colleague Lynn Rosenberg, associate director of the Slone Epidemiology Center, lead the Black Women’s Health Study, a research project that looks at risk factors for cancer in African-American women.
The Black Women’s Health Study, launched in 1995, is primarily funded by the National Cancer Institute, Palmer said. At the start of the project, Rosenberg and Palmer recruited 59,000 black women from all regions in the U.S. and gave them a baseline questionnaire with questions about their health, behavior and environment.
Every two years, researchers from the Black Women’s Health Study send a follow-up questionnaire. As of 2011, 2,200 women of the 59,000 had subsequently developed breast cancer. By gathering this information, Rosenberg and Palmer were able to begin researching possible causes, Palmer said.
Denis approached Palmer with the idea for the collaboration, Palmer said.
“It’s exactly what we want to be doing in science these days — [a] joint effort between laboratory scientists, clinicians, epidemiologists and others,” Palmer said. “You get the most fruitful results, and [you can] push things so that they go a little bit faster towards translation and something that will help people.”