Differences in the Immune Cell Environment Help Explain Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer

Roswell Park researchers to present findings at ASCO’s 54th annual meeting
Friday, June 1, 2018
Highlights: 
Breast cancer mortality is higher among African-Americans than whites
Research identified key racial differences in the tumor immune environment
These differences help explain poorer prognoses among African-Americans

CHICAGO, Ill. — Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers have identified significant differences in the immune microenvironment of breast cancer tumors between African-American and white women, shedding light on the ways in which race can influence cancer development and outcomes. The findings, to be presented at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago, are based on based on a comprehensive review of data from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), the world’s largest public database containing genetic information about various different types of tumors.

Drs. Ahmed Elkhanany and Kazuaki Takabe of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center

Ahmed Elkhanany, MD, a Roswell Park clinical fellow, is lead author and Kazuaki Takabe, MD, PhD, FACS, Alfiero Foundation Endowed Chair in Breast Oncology, is senior author of the study, “Racial disparity in breast cancer immune microenvironment” (abstract 1081), to be presented in a poster session on Saturday, June 2 from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. CDT in McCormick Place, Poster Hall A.

Although white women have the highest incidence of breast cancer in the United States, African-American women are more likely than women of any other ethnic group to die of the disease. While unequal access to high-quality screening and cancer treatment likely contributes to the higher mortality rate among African-Americans, the reasons for this racial disparity in breast cancer go beyond access to care. The biology of various breast tumors, particularly those that are not influenced by hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, differs between African-American and white women. African-American women are also more likely than white women to develop hormone-negative breast cancer, a disease type that is unresponsive to hormone therapy drugs and thus more difficult to treat.

Using the TCGA data and an algorithm that allows for in-depth analysis of various cell types in complex tissue samples, Dr. Takabe and his team found significant differences in the tumor immune microenvironment in African-American and white women that may contribute to racial disparities in the development and progression of breast cancer. Specifically, tumors from African-American breast cancer patients contained significantly higher numbers of regulatory T cells than tumors from white patients. This difference was present in most breast cancer subtypes but most notable in triple-negative breast cancer, which is three times more likely to develop in African-Americans than whites.

“Regulatory T cells cause the immune system to ‘calm down,’ which essentially decreases the body’s ability to mount an immune response to cancer cells, allowing tumors to grow,” says Dr. Elkhanany. “This finding explains why African-American women who develop certain types of breast cancer tend to have poor outcomes, and we can now use this information to develop novel therapies as well as personalize breast cancer treatment in the future.”

Several Roswell Park clinical leaders were invited to play leadership roles at the meeting. Marc Ernstoff, MD, the Katherine Anne Gioia Chair of Medicine, will speak on management of immune-checkpoint toxicity during the “Where We Stand with Immunotherapy in Colorectal Cancer” education session Saturday, June 2, from 8:40 to 9 a.m. CDT in Hall D; Eunice Wang, MD, Chief of Leukemia, will lead a discussion on advances in treatment of acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes Saturday, June 2, from 3:24 to 3:36 p.m. CDT during the “Hematologic Malignancies—Leukemia, Myelodysplastic Syndromes, and Allotransplant” oral abstract session; and Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, Deputy Director, Chair of Gynecologic Oncology and Executive Director of the Center for Immunotherapy, is a co-chair of “Engaging the Immune System in Ovarian Cancer,” a clinical science symposium to be held Sunday, June 3, from 9:45 to 11:15 a.m. CDT in room S406.

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Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is a community united by the drive to eliminate cancer’s grip on humanity by unlocking its secrets through personalized approaches and unleashing the healing power of hope. Founded by Dr. Roswell Park in 1898, it is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Upstate New York. Learn more at www.roswellpark.org, or contact us at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or ASKRoswell@roswellpark.org.

Media Contact: 

Annie Deck-Miller, Senior Media Relations Manager
716-845-8593; annie.deck-miller@roswellpark.org