Breast Cancer Genetics and Disparities Research

The Henry Ford Cancer Institute studies breast cancer genetics (the way individual cells and heritage affect cancer risk) and disparities (differences between patient populations) in care and outcomes through our cancer research program.

Partially because of our hospital’s location in Detroit, Michigan, we have particular expertise in studying breast cancer in women of African and African-American heritage. This interest dovetails with our deep resources in other areas of research, such as:

  • Translational research (bringing laboratory research to the patient bedside)
  • Gene therapy (modifying cells to help fight cancer)
  • Precision (individualized) medicine

Our researchers study:

  • Cancer incidence and outcome disparities, with a focus on breast cancer disparities related to racial/ethnic background and socioeconomic resources
  • Triple-negative breast cancer
  • Neoadjuvant systemic therapy for breast cancer
  • Lymphatic mapping and sentinel lymph node biopsy for breast cancer
  • Breast cancer risk assessment

Triple-negative breast cancer research

Studying breast cancer has long involved genetics. One now-common way doctors decide how to treat breast cancer is through genetic testing. A genetic test tells doctors whether tumor cells have one or more of three genetic markers (short bits of DNA or individual genes that tell cells how to behave).

In breast cancer, these markers might include receptors for estrogen, progesterone or HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), sometimes called HER2/neu. When doctors identify these receptors, they know which treatments can target the cancer most effectively.

Some people diagnosed with breast cancer have none of these three receptors. Doctors call these types of cancer triple-negative because they are negative for all three receptors. Triple-negative cancers often are more difficult to treat and tend to be more aggressive.

Disparities in breast cancer research

Triple-negative breast cancers affect women of African heritage more often than women of European heritage. As a result of these challenging cancers, African and African-American women may have higher mortality from breast cancer than European-American women do. Researchers call this difference a racial disparity, and it’s at the heart of Henry Ford’s current breast cancer research.

Other disparities in outcomes between African-American and European-American women may be related to economic issues, unequal care or environmental factors. We study these disparities across our cancer research programs. Learn more about cancer epidemiology, prevention and control research.

Spotlight: Studying ethnicity-related variation in breast cancer risk and outcomes

In 2015, internationally renowned breast cancer surgeon Lisa A. Newman, M.D., MPH, joined Henry Ford to lead our breast cancer program. Dr. Newman also directs the Breast Cancer Global Health Research Program and the new International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes at Henry Ford.

Dr. Newman has conducted extensive research on ethnicity-related variations in breast cancer. After noticing that her surgical practice treated a disproportionately high number of African-American women -- including younger women -- with aggressive breast cancer, Dr. Newman became especially interested in triple-negative breast cancer.

Her research took her overseas, where she began to study breast cancer among women in Ghana, where the majority of cases are triple-negative. Dr. Newman travels to Ghana several times each year and returns with samples of tissue and genetic samples.

She intends to use these materials, in combination with tissue samples collected from African-American women in the U.S., to study the connection between ethnicity and triple-negative tumors.

Our international breast cancer program includes research partners at several hospitals in Ghana, Ethiopia and Haiti. It also promotes collaborative research in the U.S., working with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Get involved with breast cancer genetics and disparities research

We offer opportunities to participate in our breast cancer research work as a researcher or a patient.

  • Find a clinical trial: We offer broad access to clinical trial opportunities for eligible patients at all stages of breast cancer. Learn more about clinical trials.
  • Become a Henry Ford researcher: Researchers can join our breast cancer genetic research work. Join our research team.
  • Support breast cancer research: Henry Ford’s Cancer Research Advisory Group (CRAG) provides funding and resources to help advance our research. Learn how you can support cancer research.

Our researchers

Our cancer imaging researchers include investigators and clinical practitioners – research specialists, doctors and radiologists who work directly with patients. Below, you can learn more about our current researchers. You also can read more about how to join our research team 

Breast cancer genetics and disparities leaders

  • Newman, Lisa A., M.D., MPH

Breast cancer genetics and disparities scientific members

  • Davis, Melissa, Ph.D.

Breast cancer genetics and disparities clinical members


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