Early in her career as a surgeon in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Lisa Newman became concerned about the patterns of breast cancer in her African-American patients.
“They were typically younger than my white American patients, and they also tended to have larger, bulkier tumors,” she says of the African-American women she treated in the 1990s. “Most tragic was that they were also more likely to have cancers that were resistant to the standard treatments available during that era.”
These observations compelled her to pursue research looking into disparities in breast cancer between black and white women. What resulted was the establishment of the International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes (ICSBCS), now headquartered at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, and tasked with enhancing breast cancer prevention and treatment through advances in research and delivery of care to diverse populations worldwide.
In her role there as founding medical director, Dr. Newman and her multidisciplinary research team study how and why breast cancer outcomes vary by patients’ race and ethnicity. One focus is the genetics of aggressive breast tumors, including triple-negative breast cancer, which does not respond to commonly available targeted therapies. It accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancer cases but occurs with greater frequency among African-American and younger women. Her group’s research is therefore uncovering genetic factors related to the root causes of breast cancer, particularly among premenopausal women. She also examines how socioeconomics affect early detection and access to treatment.
The ICSBCS now includes several sites in Africa. Much of Dr. Newman’s research focuses on Ghana, which is in Western Sub-Saharan Africa, and Ethiopia, in the eastern part of the continent. Her research has shown that triple-negative breast cancer is associated with African ancestry, and in particular with Western Sub-Saharan African ancestry. Some of the highest incidence of triple-negative breast cancer is seen in Ghanaian women, where more than half of the breast cancers are triple-negative.