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Olopade Delivers Eighth Annual Diggs Lecture

By Willie Davis and Alfred Johnson

Dr. Olufunmilayo F. Olopade, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago Medical Center, delivered the NIH Black Scientists Association John W. Diggs Lecture before an enthusiastic crowd in Masur Auditorium recently.

Her topic was "Dissection of Cooperating Genetic Pathways Involved in Aggressive Early Onset Breast Cancer Reveals Mutually Distinct Roles for BRCA1 and HER-2/neu Genes." This research is focused on trying to understand the genetic risk factors involved in the development of breast cancer in black women.

Dr. Olufunmilayo F. Olopade
"The most important risk factor in developing breast cancer is being a woman," she said. More than 190,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, but Olopade's research is more specifically designed to understand why black women tend to develop breast cancer that is more aggressive than that found in white women. She reminded the audience that in black women, breast cancer has an earlier onset, is more likely to be bilateral and is also more likely to recur after initial treatment.

Olopade reviewed the history of the identification and characterization of the breast cancer susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. While most of the hereditary data regarding the prevalence of mutations in these cases of breast cancer were from studies of Ashkenazi Jews, she was able to identify mutations that occur within non-related black families. Additionally, she reported that black women who suffer from breast cancer are "unlikely to receive genetic counseling" in attempts to explore patterns of inherited susceptibility. This factor may result in decreased vigilance among black women with an unidentified high risk of breast cancer due to familial factors.

Olopade ended the lecture with a discussion of the association of BRCA1 mutations with other tumor markers. "There is an association between BRCA1 and HER-2/neu, as breast tumors that exhibit mutations in either of these genes show similarities in their pathophysiology." She has also linked BRCA1 mutations with estrogen receptor and c-myc expression. These associations led to a model for breast cancer tumorigenesis that involves initial mutations in caretaker genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, followed by mutations in gatekeeper proteins such as cell-cycle mediators, tumor suppressors and oncogenes.

Prior to Olopade's lecture, the Black Scientists Association awarded the Cheryl Torrence-Campbell Memorial Scholarships, presented each year to two graduating seniors from District of Columbia high schools who intend to pursue an education in the sciences. The recipients were Brionna Hare of Benjamin Banneker High School, who will attend Brown University, and Kaima Howard of St. John's College High School, who will attend Loyola University. The awardees were presented with a $1,000 scholarship check and a plaque commemorating their achievement.

Dr. Roland Owens meets scholarship recipients Brionna Hare (c) of Benjamin Banneker High School and Kaima Howard of St. John's College High School.

The John W. Diggs lecture, first given in 1995, is an annual event that honors the former deputy director for extramural research at NIH. Diggs was well respected for his contributions to the NIH community and to the scientific community at large, and especially for his efforts in advancing underrepresented minorities in the biomedical sciences.

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