PHILADELPHIA, PA—What makes triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) more lethal in African American women than white women or women of European descent? A new study reveals specific genetic alterations that appear to impact their prognosis and, ultimately, survival rates. The study was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2015.

“Triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive subtype of breast cancer where limited treatment is available. These tumors are the leading cause of breast cancer deaths in African-American women, which are usually diagnosed at an earlier age and in more advanced stages of the disease, when compared with white women,” said Luciane R. Cavalli, PhD, assistant professor at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC. “The main objective of our study was to identify molecular markers in these patients that may be associated with their observed disparity in incidence and mortality rates.”

Cavalli and her research team used genome-wide screening methods to identify a distinct pattern of DNA copy number (genome regions with gains and losses) and miRNA (small non-coding regions in the genome) expression levels associated significantly with African American patients with TNBC, compared with white patients with TNBC. Cavalli explained that this association was observed irrespectively of their clinical and pathological characteristics, including age; tumor size, stage, and grade; and presence of axillary lymph node metastasis.

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Cavalli stated that the study’s initial findings suggest potential, critical, cancer-related pathways and networks that could be targeted in treating triple-negative breast cancer in African American women. Targeting these specific genetic alterations may ultimately increase overall survival for these patients.

This research was supported by a grant from the Food and Drug Administration Office of Minority Health via the Georgetown University Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation (CERSI; U01FD004319) and by a Susan G. Komen for the Cure – Post Baccalaureate Training in Disparities Research.