Millikan and partners awarded $19.3M by NCI to study breast cancer in African-American women

August 26, 2011


Robert Millikan, PhD, DVM, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, will partner with scientists from Roswell Park Cancer Institute (Buffalo, N.Y.) and Boston University to conduct the most ambitious study to date of breast cancer among younger African-American women.

Data from UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Carolina Breast Cancer Study demonstrated that African-American women under the age of 45 are more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive types of breast cancer than are women of European ancestry. The current five-year research project has been awarded $19.3 million in funding from the National Cancer Institute to try to understand this important health disparity.

Dr. Robert Millikan

Dr. Robert Millikan

Millikan, a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, has directed the Carolina Breast Cancer Study for more than a decade.

“This project will collect data on more than 5,000 African-American women, and as such, will be the largest study of its type,” Millikan said. “Our aim is to explore the potential biologic, environmental and epidemiologic causes of this difference in cancer incidence. Our previous studies and those of our colleagues have suggested hypotheses that we will be investigating with this larger group of patients.”

The grant will bring together breast cancer cases from four ongoing studies – the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), Women’s Circle of Health Study (WCHS), Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), and Multi-ethnic Cohort Study (MCS) – and more than 5,000 controls, or healthy, women.

“During the last decade, UNC researchers, including [Drs.] Charles Perou, Lisa Carey and Robert Millikan, have demonstrated that breast cancer is not one disease, but consists of at least five different subtypes,” said Shelley Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger. “Their work initiated the exploration of black/white differences in breast cancer subtypes. The current study will assemble a population of African-American patients large enough to thoroughly examine the range of risk factors and genes that could be associated with the different breast cancer subtypes.”

Millikan leads the research with Christine Ambrosone, PhD, professor of oncology and chair of the department of cancer prevention and control in the division of cancer prevention and populations science at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and Julie R. Palmer, ScD, professor of epidemiology at the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University.

The investigators will focus on subtypes of breast cancer, especially aggressive ones, and provide critical answers to improving treatment and reducing risk of breast cancer among young African-American women.

Specific issues that will be addressed with this multi-faceted approach will include genetic susceptibility; reproductive history, lactation, and hormonal factors; body size, early life and adult physical activity, and gene/environment interactions; and other risk factors in relation to breast cancer subtypes.

African-American women under age 45 have a 5-year relative survival rate of 76 percent compared to young white women, who have an 88 percent survival rate (for the years 2001-2007, the most recent years for which data are available).

The Carolina Breast Cancer Study Phases I and II enrolled more than 2,300 women with breast cancer and 2,000 controls between 1993 and 2001. Phase III of CBCS will be part of the funded study and will look additionally at the outcomes of breast cancer therapy in both African-American and Caucasian women in North Carolina.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or