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Auburn professor receives grant from American Cancer Society to advance breast cancer research

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dr. Nancy Merner, assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiology at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, recently received a $791,808 grant from the American Cancer Society to continue her research into identifying and studying genetic factors associated with with hereditary breast cancer in the African American community.

“African American women have a higher incidence of breast cancer before age 40 than other ethnic groups in the United States,” Merner said. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a more aggressive subtype with a poor prognosis. These facts, combined with reports of African American men having higher rates of breast and prostate cancer than other ethnicities, suggest that hereditary factors play a role.”

Despite the higher incidence of these cancers in the African American community, Merner said there haven’t been enough studies to pinpoint the causes.

In efforts to combat this inadequacy, the Merner research team sought out families with a history of such cancers as they traveled across the state, spreading cancer awareness in a pink bus called the “Gene Machine,” and using online resources.

“There is a critical need to identify and study genetic factors associated with African American hereditary breast cancer,” Merner explained. “Our group established the Alabama Hereditary Cancer Cohort for genetic analysis. Alabama is a severely medically disadvantaged state, with double the national percentage of African Americans. That’s why we developed strategic recruitment protocols to break down barriers to research participation to effectively recruit African-American hereditary breast cancer cases and families.”

Using data collected from those participants and others, Merner and her team performed gene sequencing and identified protein-degrading variants, or PTVs, specific to African Americans that appear to increase the risk of hereditary breast cancer. PTVs are genetic variants that shorten the protein coding sequence of genes and can cause them to stop working properly.

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“We plan to identify these PTVs associated with breast cancer in African Americans and study how they increase risk,” Merner said. “The impact of this work will be significant for this underrepresented and underrepresented group. Identification of risk variants could lead to better risk assessment and tailor-made therapies, reducing the number of breast cancer deaths.”

“Ultimately, this study will not only identify African American risk variants for breast cancer, but generating and sharing this data on cases of hereditary breast cancer in African America will contribute to the limited resources currently hampering discoveries. And finally, by conducting of subtype analyses, this proposal could specifically affect women diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, reducing deaths from this aggressive breast cancer subtype through better risk assessment and tailored therapies.

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