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Wayne State researchers will look at genetic cancer risk for African Americans

Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

Wayne State University and Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute researchers say a new federal grant will help them investigate genetic cancer risks in African Americans, and develop better screening and potential treatments for cancer in that population.

The five-year, $9.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health will fund study, called “Genetic Variation in Cancer Risk and Outcomes in African Americans.” It’s composed of three connected studies that will look at identifying cancer-linked genes, studying genetic risk factors for multiple cancers, and reducing barriers and improving access to genetic testing among African Americans.

Genetic profiles have proved increasingly vital for both cancer screening and targeted treatments. But African Americans have missed out on many of the benefits of genetic cancer research because they’re underrepresented in large genetic studies, according to Jennifer Beebe-Dimmer, a professor of oncology at Wayne State Medical School and a co-lead investigator of the study. “So we know far less about genes which predispose African Americans to being diagnosed with cancer, or for poorer survival after they're diagnosed,” she said.

One of the three studies covered by the grant aims “to better understand contributions from variants of uncertain clinical significance that occur in the high-risk African American population.” That means they’re looking for a “gene variant that may be pathogenic (cancer-causing)," but they "just don't have enough information to determine that,” Beebe-Dimmer said. “And that, again, is sort of a byproduct of having far less representation of African Americans in genetic studies.”

A second study will look at patients with multiple types of cancer. By focusing on that high-risk population, “we are more likely to discover new cancer susceptibility genes,” Beebe-Dimmer said. The third study will examine ways to facilitate more African Americans getting genetic testing.

“We hope to be able to identify variants that can be used in clinical practice, so that you can identify people at high risk for either developing a second primary cancer, or having some variant that we can target for treatment,” said Dr. Ann Schwartz, Wayne State professor of oncology and the lead investigator for the study. “And that's the goal here, is to really identify these high-risk populations so that clinically, we can move them through the system for prevention, screening, [and] targeted treatment.”

The study will leverage the Detroit Research on Cancer Survivors (ROCS), a large database of African Americans with various types of cancers. The researchers say they’ll use genetic profiles from that ongoing research to inform this study, as well as additional data.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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