Newswise — Researchers at the University of Chicago are studying possible connections between living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and the development of early onset breast cancer in a path-breaking project led by Sarah Gehlert, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research at the University.

The initiative is funded with a $9.7 million grant from National Institutes of Health and is the first to use animal models to help determine what the biological factors might be behind the development of certain forms of breast cancer.

Gehlert is lead author of the paper discussing the findings, titled "Targeting Health Disparities: Linking Upstream Determinants to Downstream Interventions" published in the current issue of Health Affairs.

Joining Gehlert, who is the Helen Ross Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University, as an author in the paper is Olufunmilayo Olopade, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Human Genetics at the University. As part of the work of the CIHDR, Olopade and other scholars studied early onset breast cases in Nigerian women, whose genetic heritage is similar to African-Americans because the ancestors of African Americans largely came from West Africa.

African-American, like Nigerian women, develop breast cancer earlier than white women, and it is often much deadlier. While white women usually develop the disease after menopause, it develops prior to menopause among women of African heritage.

Co-author Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University, carried out the animal modeling by studying the development of spontaneous mammary tumors in socially isolated rats.

Researchers are studying 230 black women with newly diagnosed breast cancers living in predominantly black Chicago neighborhoods to learn about environmental factors, such asneighborhood features that might lead to social isolation.

"These women experience stress from dealing with situations they cannot control, from seeing crime in their neighborhood, from being afraid to go out, and not being able to form casual relationships with their neighbors that might make them feel safe," Gehlert said.

By studying multiple pathways to the development of the disease, leading from environmental challenges to gene regulation, the team will help inform policy makers about making decisions in how to create cost-effective interventions, McClintock said.

The team said that the women's vulnerability to stress and social isolation could be reduced if communities work with neighborhood and city leaders to reduce building vacancies and establish networks that would give women a greater feeling of control over their environments.

Other authors in the study are University researchers Dana Sohmer, Tina Sacks and Charles Mininger.

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