Latinas and breast cancer: Researcher’s genetic work gets a boost

October 2, 2013 | by

Most breast cancers are not genetic, but for women who carry a BRCA mutation, their risk of developing breast cancer can be as high as 85 percent over their lifetime.

City of Hope researchers received $380,000 to study breast cancer mutations that affect Latinas through the Avon Foundation for Women. The money was raised through the 2013 Avon Walk in Santa Barbara.

City of Hope researchers received $380,000 to study breast cancer mutations that affect Latinas. The funds, from the Avon Foundation for Women, were raised through the 2013 Avon Walk in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Avon Foundation for Women

These mutations are relatively rare in the general population, but City of Hope research published earlier this year found a “high prevalence” of BRCA mutations among Latinas. In fact, 25 percent of the 746 Hispanic women with a personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer tested positive for a BRCA mutation.

“Despite a lower risk of breast cancer overall for Latinas, research has demonstrated that the hereditary form of breast cancer may be more frequent among Latinas with a personal or family history of early-onset breast cancer or ovarian cancer, and they should undergo genetic cancer risk assessment,” said Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics at City of Hope.

But genetic cancer risk assessment isn’t always available to underserved Latino communities, both regionally and globally. At the same time, breast cancer is a significant health concern for Latinas: It's both the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Latinas and the leading cause of cancer death.

Weitzel and his team have completed groundbreaking, necessary research on the cancer risk among Latinas, and their ongoing work with this community recently received a significant boost – a $380,000 grant from the Avon Foundation for Women.

The grant is intended to help evaluate BRCA mutations unique to Latino men and women. The team's project supports the development of a skilled cancer-risk counseling workforce in Mexico. It also  takes advantage of a proven City of Hope Clinical Cancer Genetics training program, co-led by Kathleen Blazer, Ed.D, C.G.C.

Weitzel and his team determined not only that BRCA mutations are prevalent in the Latina population, but that a significant percentage had large rearrangement mutations, which may be overlooked by basic screenings.

Furthermore, the City of Hope studies also identified patterns of recurrent mutations, leading to the development of a cost-effective genetic test in Weitzel's Beckman Research Institute laboratory to screen for these mutations. This breakthrough could allow for greater access to genetic cancer risk assessment in underserved areas, including Mexico and Latin America.

Jeffrey Weitzel, M.D., accepts a $380,000 grant from the Avon Foundation for Women at its 2013 walk in Santa Barbara.

Jeffrey Weitzel accepts a $380,000 grant from the Avon Foundation for Women at its 2013 walk in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: Avon Foundation for Women

“Screening for the most commonly seen mutations rather than more than a thousand of them makes genetic testing more efficient and more affordable,” Weitzel said. “We can make this critically important tool available to underserved populations, regionally and across the world, who may not have had access to them before. This could allow more women to be aware of their risk and take appropriate preventative measures.”