BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Rates of death from breast cancer are 40% higher in black women than in white women. Research shows the tumors are more aggressive, but experts did not know why Black women tended to have more aggressive tumors.
New research from Roswell Park shows the aggressive cancer is related to a greater number of "exhausted" immune cells.
“Those cells, immune cells, tend to be more dysfunctional or exhausted," said Song Yao Professor of Oncology at Roswell Park and one of the research team leaders. "So that means it cannot control tumor cells well.”
Yao said knowing the immune cells are in a state of exhaustion could improve treatment, and ultimately survival rates for Black women with breast cancer.
“This opens a door for more research, to help find a way to close the gap of racial disparities,” said Yao.
Yao believes the information about cell functions means black patients are more likely to benefit from new immunotherapy treatment. He said it targets cells that are not working and reenergizes them.
“Immunotherapy is so new and so expensive, so the societal barriers for all patients to get the cutting-edge treatment is really high," Yao said. "So certainly there will be more efforts needed to overcome the barriers.”
Roswell's Senior VP for Population Sciences Christine Ambrosone, a leader of the research team, said societal factors are still at play, but this study just focused on the biology. She said Western New York has the highest breast cancer rates in the state, and higher than many other parts of the country.
“If we can have an impact on breast cancer in Black women it should have a large impact on what’s going on right here in our area,” Ambrosone said.
Ambrosone said the next big step in research is studying the response in Black and white patients on immunotherapy drugs, and looking at if immune and societal factors lead to differences in patient outcomes.
The team's work can be found here.