The discriminatory cancer


These aggressive tumors strike women an average of two decades earlier than other forms of breast cancer and can return quickly after chemotherapy.

More cell lines in the freezer could mean more options, eventually, for women with a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer. That’s the idea behind LaTonia Taliaferro-Smith’s plans to generate more basic materials for scientists working on triple-negative breast cancer.

These aggressive tumors strike women an average of two decades earlier than other forms of breast cancer and can return quickly after chemotherapy. The triple-negative label refers to the tumor’s lack of three biologic markers that make other breast cancers vulnerable to standard drugs such as tamoxifen or Herceptin. Triple-negative breast cancers disproportionally affect African American women and contribute to their higher rate of breast cancer mortality, according to Emory studies.

Taliaferro-Smith, a researcher at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, ran into a problem when she began pursuing new targets for drugs that fight triple-negative breast cancers. “The idea is to have a representative set of cell lines, but there are very few cell lines from African American donors,” she says. She wants to remedy that problem by making Winship “a go-to resource nationwide for researchers working on triple-negative.”

To generate more cell lines, Taliaferro-Smith proposes to tap tissue banks at Winship and Grady Memorial Hospital. The Winship tissue bank began collecting biopsy samples from clinical study participants in 2010.

Cell lines are what researchers in the lab grow in large amounts from patient tissue samples to study how the cells have been altered or how they respond to drugs. Patients who have already donated tissue and given their consent need not undergo an additional biopsy for cell lines to be created.

Additional cell lines will enable Taliaferro-Smith to test combinations of existing therapies across a wider spectrum of tumors. She also will examine whether drugs that target a molecule, insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R), would be viable. Recent research has shown that IGF1R is hyperactivated in triple-negative breast cancer. But so far, most of what scientists know about IGF1R pertains to its activation in hypertension and diabetes, not triple-negative, she says.

Medical research historically has not encompassed diverse cross-sections of the population, and the scarcity of cancer cell lines from African Americans reflects this. As a recent report on demographics and cancer research by the National Cancer Institute warned, “The risk factors, screening guidelines, and treatment regimens identified through research are often not appropriate for individuals of non-European descent.”

Over the past few decades, African American women have not participated in clinical studies in cancer at rates equivalent to those of white women. To combat this reluctance, “I like to talk with prospective donors and explain who I am and what is involved in the study,” Taliaferro-Smith says.

The researcher has a personal connection to triple-negative cancer—six members of her husband’s family have been diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 50. “This is more than just a job for me,” she says. —Quinn Eastman

Table of Contents

Bookmark and Share



Subscribe for Updates
Sign up for Emory Health email