In a path-breaking project, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that breast cancer in black women may be linked to neighbourhood conditions.
This is a first of its kind study to use animal models to help determine what the biological factors might be behind the development of certain forms of breast cancer.
The team of researchers led by Sarah Gehlert, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research at the University and Helen Ross Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University, are studying possible connections between living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the development of early onset breast cancer.
For the study, the researchers studied early onset breast cases in Nigerian women, whose genetic heritage is similar to African-Americans' because the ancestors of African-Americans largely came from West Africa.
Just like Nigerian women, the African-American women develop breast cancer earlier than white women, and it is often much deadlier. While white women usually develop the disease after menopause, it develops prior to menopause among women of African heritage.
The researchers carried out the animal modelling by studying the development of spontaneous mammary tumors in socially isolated rats.
Currently they are studying 230 black women with newly diagnosed breast cancers predominantly residing in black Chicago neighbourhoods to learn about environmental factors, such as neighbourhood features that might lead to social isolation.
"These women experience stress from dealing with situations they cannot control, from seeing crime in their neighbourhood, from being afraid to go out, and not being able to form casual relationships with their neighbours that might make them feel safe," said Gehlert.
The authors of the study said that by studying multiple pathways to the development of the disease, leading from environmental challenges to gene regulation, the team will help inform policy makers about making decisions in how to create cost-effective interventions.
The team said that the women's vulnerability to stress and social isolation could be reduced if communities work with neighbourhood and city leaders to reduce building vacancies and establish networks that would give women a greater feeling of control over their environments.
The study titled "Targeting Health Disparities: Linking Upstream Determinants to Downstream Interventions" is published in the current issue of Health Affairs.