Hampton University’s Cancer Research Center Receives $446,000 Grant for Breast Cancer Research

HAMPTON, Va. (June 6, 2019) – The Hampton University Cancer Research Center (HUCRC) has received a $446,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. This new grant focuses on improving the characterization of the genetic changes that could potentially be causing breast cancer in African-American women.

“Cancer research and prevention is so incredibly important, especially for African Americans, who have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the United States for most cancers. Congratulations to Dr. Luisel Ricks-Santi and Dr. John McDonald for securing this important grant. Their efforts do not go unnoticed,” said Hampton University President, Dr. William R. Harvey.

Dr. Ricks-Santi, a Hampton University alumna and cancer geneticist, was formally trained at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. After her PhD, Dr. Ricks-Santi was recruited into the Howard University-Johns Hopkins University Cancer Centers Program where she did research on cancer genomics, cancer genetic epidemiology, public health genomics, and in the clinical-translational sciences.

While at Howard, Dr. Ricks-Santi received a grant to engage women in research regarding breast cancer and family health history. After she came back to Hampton University to work professionally, Dr. Ricks-Santi was able to bring her research to the HUCRC and continue her work. From there, Dr. Ricks-Santi and Dr. John McDonald, assistant professor of physics, wrote this new grant and received the funds to continue the retrospective study. They will recruit women from the Hampton Roads area for a new prospective cohort to look at regional differences and the mutational spectrum by region.

This study looks at family health history of women with breast cancer. If a woman has a family health history of breast cancer or any type of cancer, a doctor may recommend or prescribe a genetic test. The most common test for breast cancer is BRCA 1 and 2. There are also panel tests, which include BRCA 1 and 2, and up to 80 genes. “We’ve found additional genes that have been associated with breast cancer. However, because those tests are informed by people who don’t look like us, they will generally benefit those who don’t look like us,” said Dr. Luisel Ricks-Santi, Director of the HUCRC. “So what happens with African Americans, is a lot of times, the tests come back inconclusive. What the grant aims to do is to improve the characterization of those inconclusive results.”

The HUCRC’s case includes DNA from 300 breast cancer cases, some of which have family history and some that don’t have family history of cancer. There are also 300 control cases. “What we’re doing is looking for genetic mutations that we only find in those with the family history and those that don’t have family history, and hopefully there won’t be an overlap with those in the population. That gives us a better indication of what the genetic variants might mean,” said Dr. Ricks-Santi.

The second part of the grant will be to take those genetic mutations, which the researchers believe are causing the disease, and use in vitro models, or cells in petri dishes, to mutate them to reflect that genetic change and observe what happens to the characteristic or behavior of the cell. Dr. John McDonald will conduct the in vitro studies.

Conclusions from the study could help doctors make a more informed decision as far as treatment goes for these women. “It means the difference between getting a lumpectomy and radiation versus getting a total mastectomy, so the treatment recommendations are different for someone who doesn’t have a family history to someone who does have family history.” said Dr. Ricks-Santi.

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