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IU researcher nets $1.3M grant for study to improve breast cancer treatment for Black women

Harikrishna Nakshatri.JPG
Posted at 10:44 PM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 22:44:06-05

INDIANAPOLIS — A researcher from the Indiana University School of Medicine has been awarded a $1.3 million grant for his work identifying the unique biology that may make Black women more susceptible to aggressive breast cancer.

Dr. Harikrishna Nakshatri, PhD, received the grant from the Department of Defense - Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program's breast cancer research program. Nakshatri is the associate director of education at the Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Marian J. Morrison Professor of Breast Cancer Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The grant will allow Nakshatri to continue to characterize unique biomarkers within the normal breasts of Black women and how that impacts health disparities in breast cancer. The research could lead to improved treatments for Black women, who face a higher mortality rate for breast cancer.

"The vast majority of people think of health disparities from the point of view of socio-economic factors, but we are looking at the biologic factors or the biologic basis of health disparities," Nakshatri said. "This doesn't account for all cases of health disparity, but there is a certain section where it may inform treatment."

One aspect of Nakshatri's research has demonstrated that normal breast tissue in Black women contains a cell type called PZP at a much higher number when compared to normal breast tissue of white women. These cells increase in number when white women develop breast cancer, while they are naturally higher in Black women, according to the IU School of Medicine. Nakshatri's lab is exploring whether breast cancer can originate from these cells and what role, if any, they play in helping cancer grow.

Nakshatri's research has also found that another biologic explanation may come from a genetic mutation called duffy, which is present in Black women with sub-Saharan Africa ancestry.

Analyzing the DNA from 100 Black women, Nakshatri found that about 40 percent carried the mutation, which research showed that when women with the mutation developed breast cancer it tended to be much more aggressive.

"What we found was that the normal breast cells of these duffy carrier women already have signaling molecules for cancer initiation at a much higher level," Nakshatri said. "That gives me an explanation of why they may develop breast cancers that are aggressive."

According to the IU School of Medicine, there are already cancer drugs that target the signaling molecules but they have not been tested for targeted therapy for specific genetic cases.

"The question we are asking is: Do these women need a different type of treatment is they are carriers of this mutation? Should they go through conventional treatment, or can we add or subtract some of the treatments to make them respond better?" Nakshatri said. "There are many drugs out there that we still need to figure out who will benefit from them: that is our ultimate goal."