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Different cancer survival for blacks and whites: Are genes involved?

July 10, 2009 |  5:47 pm

Socioeconomic differences may not be the only culprit when it comes to explaining the difference in survival rates between blacks and whites with cancer. 

Even when researchers adjusted for factors such as income, education, age and severity of illness, they found that African Americans were more likely to die from breast, ovarian and prostate cancer than were whites. That's the conclusion of a study to be published July 15 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (The link will take you to the abstract. Unfortunately, you have to pay to read the whole report.)

“A lot of factors that have been used to explain population statistics that surround socioeconomic disparities and access to care are not present here,” says study coauthor Dr. Kathy Albain of Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., in a telephone interview.

Now, the question left is why.

The fact that the disparity was found only in sex-specific cancers suggests a racial difference in hormonal environment or in genes that control the metabolism of drugs, toxins and hormones, Albain says.

But the study (which looked at cancer outcomes in nearly 20,000 adults) has certain limitations. For that reason, other researchers still question if these conclusions about genetic differences can be drawn yet. For example, differences in survival could be related to disparities in the quality of the two populations' overall health or their tendency to adhere to the cancer therapies they received.

Albain adds that although the gene patterns reducing cancer survival may be more common in blacks, not all African Americans will carry them. And some white people will. Once the important genetic patterns are identified, "We can then alter treatment regardless of the race that has the pattern.... It could be a win-win for all patients of all races.”

Read an article by the Chicago Tribune for more information about the study and what scientists think of it.

-- Shara Yurkiewicz