Harikrishna Nakshatri, PhD
Harikrishna Nakshatri, PhD, who is identifying the unique biology that may make Black women more susceptible to aggressive breast cancer, received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Defense–Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program’s breast cancer research program. Dr. -Nakshatri is Associate Director of Education at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Marian J. Morrison Professor of Breast Cancer Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.
The grant will allow Dr. Nakshatri to continue to characterize unique biomarkers within the normal breasts of Black women and how that impacts health disparities in breast cancer. The research could lead to improved treatments for Black women, who face a higher mortality rate for breast cancer.
A Different Approach
“The vast majority of people think of health disparities from the point of view of socioeconomic factors, but we are looking at the biologic factors or the biologic basis of health disparities,” Dr. Nakshatri said. “This doesn’t account for all cases of health disparity, but there is a certain section where it may inform treatment.”
Dr. Nakshatri’s research has shown that normal breast tissue in Black women contains a cell type called PZP at a much higher number when compared with normal breast tissue of White women. PZP cells increase in number when White women develop breast cancer, whereas they are naturally higher in Black women. Dr. Nakshatri’s lab is exploring the nature of these PZP cells, to determine whether breast cancer can originate from them and to detect their role in helping cancer grow.
Another Biologic Explanation
Although Black women develop cancer at the same rate as women of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, the cancer often occurs at a younger age and tends to be more aggressive. This may be attributable to a genetic mutation called Duffy, which is present in Black women with sub-Saharan African ancestry.
“That mutation is embedded in this population because it protects them against malarial infection,” said Dr. Nakshatri, who is also a researcher at the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research. “Current research has shown that when women who carry this mutation develop breast cancer, it tends to be much more aggressive.”
Dr. Nakshatri analyzed DNA from 100 Black women and found that about 40% carried this mutation. He then used normal breast tissue of Duffy mutation carriers and compared it with cells from Black women who do not carry the mutation.
“What we found was that the normal breast cells of these Duffy carrier women already have signaling molecules for cancer initiation at a much higher level,” he said. “That gives me an explanation of why they may develop breast cancers that are aggressive.” Although there are existing cancer drugs that target these signaling molecules, they have not been tested for targeted therapy for specific genetic cases. Dr. Nakshatri will use an animal model to find out whether those drugs can be used to target breast cancer in Black women who carry the Duffy mutation.