University at Buffalo: Scientist Receives Federal Grant for “Jewels in Our Genes” Follow Up

Heather Ochs-Balcom, PhD.
“We hope to identify genes that are unique to African Americans that might explain differences in breast cancer risk. ”
Heather Ochs-Balcom, PhD, Director of Graduate Studies, MPH Program; Director, MPH Concentration in Epidemiology; Associate Professor

Published July 12, 2019

During the “Jewels in Our Genes” study several years ago, Dr. Heather Ochs-Balcom and her team pinpointed four locations in the genome of African American women that may contain undiscovered genes that contribute to hereditary breast cancer.

The University at Buffalo scientist has received a new federal grant to further that work with a follow-up study.

Dr. Ochs-Balcom, an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions was awarded $457,660 from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

In this new study, Dr. Ochs-Balcom and her colleagues from the University of Southern California, Case Western Reserve University and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) will zero in on the four regions previously identified in Jewels in Our Genes, studying them in larger external datasets.

“We hope to identify genes that are unique to African Americans that might explain differences in breast cancer risk,” said Dr. Ochs-Balcom. “If we see significant genetic variants in these regions in these larger datasets, that will help us to not only narrow down the regions to specific genes, but also may lead to new breast cancer gene discovery.”

Such a discovery would be huge. Young African American women experience higher rates of, and deaths due to, breast cancer compared to European Americans. The reasons for these disparities are complex, according to Dr. Ochs-Balcom.

Jewels in Our Genes (2009-2014) was the first published breast cancer linkage study in African Americans. In contrast, the first linkage study for breast cancer in white women and the subsequent identification of BRCA1 — the gene whose mutations are linked to hereditary breast cancer — was conducted in the early 1990s.