University of Chicago

The Noreen Fraser Foundation's first translational research grant was given to Dr. Olufunmilayo F. (Funmi) Olopade, M.B., FACP, Professor, Department of Medicine and Director for the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center. NFF's grant will allow Dr. Olopade to launch a first of its kind genome-wide study to find genes that may be responsible for an aggressive form of breast cancer known as estrogen receptor (ER) negative breast cancer. ER negative breast cancer is highly aggressive, resistant to treatment and presents with a poor prognosis and yet it is a breast cancer subtype that has been understudied. Notably, ER negative breast cancer disproportionately affects women under the age of 40 and women of African and African American ancestry.

2013 Update

Developing Biomarkers for Early-Detection of Aggressive Breast Cancer, Dr. Funmi Olopade, Unviersity of Chicago

Dr. Olopade’s laboratory has been at the forefront of breast cancer research and is a previous recipient of a Noreen Fraser Foundation grant. With the funding provided in 2013, Dr. Olopade’s team will leverage work already done in the lab to develop novel biomarkers for the early detection of aggressive breast cancer in at risk women. Globally, early onset breast cancer (breast cancer in younger women) is an urgent research question. Younger women diagnosed with breast cancer are more likely than older women to be diagnosed with ER negative breast cancer, a subtype of the disease that is highly aggressive, resistant to treatment, and associated with poor prognosis.

Currently, there is no defined strategy for detecting aggressive breast cancer early because by its nature, it develops quickly often presenting as an interval cancer (a cancer detected within 12 months of a normal mammogram) in women undergoing yearly mammograms.

Through recent work, Dr. Olopade has shown for the first time that breast cancer in BRCA1/2 mutation carriers and other breast cancer gene carries under the age 40 can be downstaged through surveillance with mammography (MMG) and bi-annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Dr. Olopade’s team evaluated the efficacy of semi annual MRI in high-risk women against conventional wisdom of yearly MRI. The work supports MRI screening every 6 months as an effective screening strategy and a viable alternative to prophylactic mastectomy in women with inherited mutations in cancer susceptibility genes. These findings were presented to great acclaim at ASCO in June 2013.

As a result of her work on the MRI trial, Dr. Olopade’s team collected breast tumors and blood samples of aggressive forms of breast cancer and with our grant funds will test them with cutting edge genomic technology to determine if there are susceptibility genes in early onset aggressive breast cancer and investigate their potential role for early detection and prevention of breast cancer.

The Research

While risk factors of and therapy for ER positive breast cancer have been clearly identified, little is understood about ER negative breast cancer, including its genetic and environmental risk factors, appropriate screening methods, and effective treatments. For reasons that remain unknown, women with BRCA1 mutations who develop breast cancer are more likely to be diagnosed with the ER negative subtype. However, there may be other genes and environmental factors (e.g., diet, physical activity, hormone replacement therapy, exposure to toxins) that interact to promote ER negative breast cancer development in young women, especially those with a strong family history of the disease. Dr. Olopade and her team are looking to fill in these knowledge gaps by taking a whole-genome approach to studying the development of early-onset ER negative breast cancer.

Using tissue and blood samples from the Breast Cancer Family Registry and the University of Chicago, Dr. Olopade and her team will use the latest genomic technologies to perform whole genome scans that can be shared with the larger cancer research community to identify and validate susceptibility genes in early onset ER negative breast cancer and investigate gene-gene interactions. The study also aims to identify novel associations between genetic mutations, other than those of BRCA1/2, that modify the risk of estrogen receptor (ER) negative breast cancer. Ultimately, it is Dr. Olopade's hope that this research contributes to a larger effort to reduce cancer mortality and improve clinical outcomes for all women with breast cancer, especially those who are from high-risk families and were diagnosed at a young age.

Enhanced screening and targeted therapies developed over the past several decades have improved the outlook for many cancer patients, yet breast cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death for women under the age of 40. While great progress has been made regarding the biology and successful treatment of estrogen receptor (ER) positive breast cancer, very little is known about ER negative breast cancer. We need bold, new approaches to determine the genetic and environmental risk factors, appropriate screening, and effective treatments necessary to make a greater impact on this increasingly common subset of breast cancer.

Dr. Olopade

As a physician and scientist, Dr. Olopade studies young women from high-risk families and is currently working with scientists all over the world to understand why breast cancer runs in families and what we can do to prevent breast cancer by empowering women to take charge of their health. Her team of researchers was the first to discover inherited mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in African American families.

As the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, Dr. Olopade epitomizes the "bench to bedside" philosophy in her application of scientific discoveries to clinical medicine and has seamlessly parlayed her findings into clinical applications. As a Hematologist/Oncologist, Dr. Olopade specializes in cancer risk assessment, prevention, early detection, and treatment of aggressive breast cancer that disproportionately affects young women. A member of many professional societies including the Association of American Physicians, Dr. Olopade has national and international recognition as a physician-scientist. A speaker in much demand, she effectively disseminates the benefits of her work, inspires students and colleagues, and is a role model for women scientists worldwide.

Dr. Olopade is the recipient of numerous honors and awards including the James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar award, the Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist award, and a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant.