ATLANTA — Morehouse School of Medicine’s latest research explains why African-American women are at greater risk of developing more aggressive and difficult-to-treat forms of breast cancer.  Conducted by Veena N. Rao, Ph.D., co-director of the Cancer Biology Program at the Morehouse School of Medicine, the research provides the empirical evidence for what many long thought to be true.

“Morehouse School of Medicine focuses our research on signature areas that disproportionately affect minority communities including cardiometabolic diseases, HIV/AIDS, neurological disorders and cancer,” said Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., dean and executive vice president of Morehouse School of Medicine.  “Dr. Rao’s discovery is in line with our mission to better understand health inequities and developing a cure.”

While white women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to develop aggressive breast cancers with lesser-known treatments and more likely to die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.  Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death among African-American women.  The American Cancer Society estimated more than 6,000 African-American women will die of breast cancer in 2011.

Rao is professor and co-director of the Cancer Biology Program, in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine and her latest research is published in Volume 226, Issue 12, of the Journal of Cellular Physiology.  Her study could lead to the discovery of novel biomarkers that can predict disease progression and validate the increased risk for African-American women in developing these aggressive breast cancers.

Rao’s research findings reveal why young African-American women with triple negative breast cancers who have cytoplasmic mislocalization of BRCA1 proteins often develop BRCA1-associated hereditary and sporadic breast cancers.  The function of the BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast cells growing normally.  But when these genes contain abnormalities or mutations that are passed from generation to generation, the genes do not function normally and breast cancer risk increases. 

Following the discovery of the breast cancer gene in 1994, researchers have come a long way in unlocking how various forms of breast cancer develop and creating targeted treatment therapies. Rao has

spearheaded numerous breakthroughs in breast cancer research including the identification of short form BRCA1 proteins known as BRCA1a and BRCA1b — which are expressed at reduced levels in breast and ovarian cancers.  Her team was the first to show mere down regulation of expression of BRCA1 in normal cells results in cancer, BRCA1 nuclear cytoplasm shuttling is a regulated process, BRCA1a induces cell death in breast cancer cells and the first to introduce BRCA1a into triple negative breast cancer by gene therapy and successfully block tumor development in mice.  Since she began her lab work in 1994, Rao has received four patents for her research findings.

“We are showing for the first time that the exclusive non-nuclear distribution of mutant BRCA1 and BRCA1a proteins cause deregulated Ubc9 resulting in breast cancer” said Rao.  “BRCA1 serves as a master switch which, by turning off or on Ubc9 binding, controls estrogen receptor activity and cell growth.  This discovery will change the current understanding of how BRCA1 functions as a tumor suppressor by bringing in novel concepts and new directions.”

Rao received the 2005 Science Spectrum Emerald Honors Senior Investigator Award, the 2006 Science Spectrum Trail Blazer Award, the 2007 Women of Color in Technology Research Leadership Award and the 2008 North American Konkani Association Outstanding Achievement in Science Award.  She also received the Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar award.  In 2009, she was appointed as an editorial board member of the BENTHAM Open Breast Cancer Journal and in 2011 as an editorial board member of the World Journal of Translational Research and Hereditary Current Research.  In 2011, she received the ASIOA Mario Toppo distinguished scientist Award for her work on breast cancer — the first women to receive this award.

This work was funded by Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar Award, NIH U54, RCMI, ACTSI and ING

Foundation.  For more information on scientific discoveries at Morehouse School of Medicine, visit

Photo: Veena N. Rao