Image showing a breast tumor with infiltrating immune cells.
Interpreting clues our immune cells hold in order to address unequal outcomes for Black and white women with breast cancer is the goal at the heart of one of many high-priority projects underway at Roswell Park.

Roswell Park Team’s Pioneering Work on Factors Driving Breast Cancer Racial Disparities Draws $5.2M NCI Award

Group that uncovered differences in immune cells of women with breast cancer earns funding for larger investigation

  • Prestigious ‘R01’ award to be led by a multidisciplinary team of experts
  • Team discovered key differences in immune cells of Black women and white women
  • New funding will enable larger study in collaboration with NYS Cancer Registry

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A multidisciplinary team of experts from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center has earned a prestigious $5.2 million “R01” grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for a groundbreaking investigation into clues that immune cells may hold about breast cancer disparities between Black women and white women. This competitive grant from the largest single agency within the National Institutes of Health is one of several multimillion-dollar grants Roswell Park researchers have earned for work to address the disproportionate burden of cancer among Black Americans.

“Racial health disparities are a persistent problem across a spectrum of health conditions and have recently been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Congressman Brian Higgins. “Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center’s leadership on this $5 million federal study addresses the urgent problem head-on.”

“I’m so proud of the work our teams across Roswell Park are doing to reverse these unacceptable disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes,” adds Candace S. Johnson, PhD, President and CEO of the Buffalo-based cancer center. “They are using every resource we have, from community outreach to advanced bioinformatics, to tackle this issue and contribute to a healthier, more equitable future.”

Three co-principal investigators will lead the work to understand how the number and types of immune cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in breast  tumors may contribute to different clinical outcomes in women of African and European ancestry:

  • Christine Ambrosone, PhD, Chair of Cancer Prevention & Control and Senior Vice President of Population Sciences
  • Song Yao, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control
  • Scott Abrams, PhD, Professor of Oncology in the Department of Immunology

This team, working also with Thaer Khoury, MD, FCAP, Chief of Breast Pathology, and Angela Omilian, PhD, Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control, will examine the immune profiles of tumors from Black women and white women with breast cancer to learn how they may differ and whether they may relate to the disparities seen in risk for breast cancer, incidence of aggressive tumors and survival.

“We know that having higher levels of immune cells in tumors is generally associated with better survival,” explains Dr. Ambrosone. “In our previous work looking at tumor tissues, the levels of TILs were higher in Black women for all breast tumor subtypes — which left us scratching our heads, because higher TILs are supposed to be associated with better survival, yet Black patients have worse survival across all breast cancer types. We realized: Maybe it’s not total TILs driving survival but specific types of TILs.”

This team of researchers, with funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, previously discovered that TILs in the tumors of Black women tended to fall into a class known as the “exhausted” phenotype — immune cells that have lost their functional ability to kill tumor cells. Based on those earlier findings, the group will now test whether they see the same patterns in a larger statewide study in collaboration with the New York State Cancer Registry.

“This is a new area of research that may uncover significant implications for how different patients respond to cancer therapy, and may even open up opportunities for prevention,” notes Dr. Ambrosone.

Roswell Park’s ongoing work to address race-based health inequities has attracted several multimillion-dollar grants from federal agencies. These grants include $9.7 million awarded last year for two separate investigations focused on breast cancer, a $1.2 million grant from 2017 to explore factors driving disparities in prostate cancer outcomes and $4.1 million awarded in 2016 for two other projects led by Dr. Ambrosone, also focused on breast cancer disparities.


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, or contact us at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or

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