October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is also a time to recognize the dramatic drop of about one-third in breast cancer deaths over the past three decades largely due to better screening and treatment options.
Yet, not all patients have shared equally in these improvements, said Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Kevin Williams, of North Carolina Central University (NCCU)’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE).
Williams and other NCCU researchers are focused on the approximately 20 percent of patients who have breast cancer that is especially hard to treat. Some cancers don’t respond well to available treatments, while others are difficult to diagnose until they are in advanced stages.
Examples include inflammatory breast cancer and triple-negative breast cancer, both of which carry even greater risk for African-American patients. According to the National Cancer Institute, the death rate for African-American breast cancer patients is 25 percent higher than for Caucasians – even though Caucasian women are more likely to develop the disease.
“For some percentage of breast cancer patients, there are far fewer options for treatment,” Williams said. “So that’s where our work is focused – on novel targets and therapies that can improve outcomes for more patients.”
Williams calls BRITE a “mini-drug-discovery lab,” where therapeutic compounds are developed and tested. “We are really beginning to understand what is driving the cancer growth, and what its pathways are,” Williams said.
The compounds developed at BRITE are taken into the initial stages of drug testing in collaboration with Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which have medical schools.
NCCU junior pre-med major Dillon Strepay, of Cary, N.C., has been working with Williams in exploring potential new treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, which effects about 15 percent of cancer patients and does not respond to traditional hormone treatments.
“What we are heading toward is individualized treatment based on the molecular basis of the tumors,” Strepay said.
Another type of cancer that is hard to detect and treat is inflammatory breast cancer, which is found in about five percent of cancer diagnoses. Instead of a typical lump, the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer are swelling and tenderness.
Williams said it is often mistaken as a breast infection resulting in delayed diagnosis, “even by experienced physicians.” This is something else researchers are hoping to change.
Williams is part of a Breast Cancer Focus Group at NCCU, which also includes Drs. Sean Kimbro, Jodie Fleming and Xiaohe Yang working collaboratively on research project proposals.
The drug development work receives funding from several sources, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, and is designed to help scientists better understand disparities in cancer outcomes among minority and socio-economically disadvantaged populations.
About North Carolina Central University
North Carolina Central University prepares students to succeed in the global marketplace. Flagship programs include the sciences, technology, nursing, education, law, business and the arts. Founded in 1910 as a liberal arts college for African- Americans, NCCU remains committed to diversity in higher education. Our alumni excel in a wide variety of academic and professional fields. Visit www.nccu.edu.