Study Says Genetics May Contribute to Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer

Mass General researchers found that black women tend to have different types of mutations and higher rates of tumor recurrence.

A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cancer Center has identified genomic differences between the breast cancer tumors of white and African American women, a finding that could help explain why African American women are more susceptible to aggressive cancers.

Research has long shown that African American women are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from breast cancer than white women, but Mass General’s study is the first to point to genetics as a reason for racial disparities in breast cancer. The researchers examined genomic information from 105 African American and 664 white patients who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1988 and 2013, and found that a specific type of severe mutation—known as TP53—is more common among black than white patients. African American women also tended to have more aggressive types of tumors, more mutations, and faster tumor recurrence than white women.

Socioeconomic factors, like income and access to health insurance, are also related to disease disparities, but Mass General’s findings give a fuller explanation as to why black women are 40 percent more likely to have fatal breast cancers. The results could also help doctors develop better targeted therapies in the future, says study senior author Aditya Bardia, an attending physician at Mass General’s Cancer Center, in a statement:

“Our study adds important pieces to the puzzle of why African American women with breast cancer are less likely to survive,” says senior author Aditya Bardia. “If our findings are confirmed by additional studies, they may open doors to the development of targeted therapies against the tumor subtypes more likely to affect African Americans and potentially help reduce racial disparities in breast cancer.”