Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Berg studies racial disparity in breast cancer


Star-Ledger Staff

A scientist at the forefront of research on a suspected breast cancer gene that appears to be more active in the tumors of black women said yesterday she is now working on developing a blood test that could prove key in the gene's early detection.

Patricia Berg, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., updated her research on the gene -- called BP1--during a lecture in New Brunswick titled "Unraveling Racial Differences in Breast Cancer."

If the gene can be found through a blood test, Berg said, the result could be quicker diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

"This gene is turned on early. It's not a late event," said Berg, whose talk was co-sponsored by the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities, which is based at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

When mice in a small study were injected with cells containing the BP1 gene, all of them developed tumors in a period of just five weeks, Bergen said.

"High BP1 may be associated with an increase in the number of tumors and larger tumors in mice," she said. "Our goal is to find out how to knock out BP1. It's a good target."

While the incidence of breast cancer is higher in white women, it kills black women at higher rates. Although socio-economic factors may play a role in the disparity, Berg said, it does not explain the whole picture.

Through her research, Berg and her colleagues have found that BP1 is found in 89 percent of the tumors of black women, compared to 57 percent of the tumors of white women.

Further, BP1 is present in 80 percent of all breast tumors, compared to just 11 percent of normal breast tissue, Berg said.

This year, 212,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer; about 40,000 will die from it.

A major part of her research focuses on identifying drugs that can suppress the BP1 gene.

"We believe BP1 is associated with the more aggressive tumors," said Berg.

Berg chairs the research committee at George Washington. She has received funding support from sources including the National Cancer Institute and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Diane Brown, who as head of the UMDNJ institute invited Berg to speak, emphasized the significance of Berg's work. "We need to expose our faculty and other members of our community to cutting- edge research as it relates to health disparities," said Brown.

Deborah Toppmeyer, who directs the breast cancer program at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, said Berg's work will have applications far beyond the BP1 gene.

"It's quite provocative. This is helping us to understand what are the legitimate risks that predispose individuals to development of the disease," said Toppmeyer, who teaches at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Angela Stewart writes about health care.