Kenyan mission could help find breast cancer cure

IU Simon Cancer Center to get samples from Africa

INDIANAPOLIS - A pink ribbon adorns the outside of a tank full of liquid nitrogen at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center near downtown Indianapolis.

It belongs to the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank . Inside that tank: healthy breast tissue samples from 3,100 American women.

As much as those samples have aided the advancement of breast cancer research, scientists know they need to do more.

Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo, executive director of the Komen Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer Center, is leading the charge to Kenya.

Storniolo, along with the Komen Tissue Bank team, thinks there are answers to be found in that country in the battle against a specific type of breast cancer.

"We wanted to collect tissue from women in Africa because there is a disproportionate incidence of a kind of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer," said Storniolo.

She said estimates show that 60 to 70 percent of breast cancer cases in Africa are triple-negative.

That's relevant in Indiana, Storniolo said, because African-American women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer as their Caucasian counterparts.

Storniolo cited 30 percent of African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer have this particular type of cancer, while just 15 percent of Caucasian-American women are diagnosed with it.

The team just returned from a site visit Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya. The university has a partnership with Indiana University called AMPATH -- Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare Consortium .

"I thought to myself while I was there, of course we're going to find the answer in Africa, that's where all the rest of our stem cells initially come from," said Storniolo.

Her thoughts stirred during the trip, landing on the final goal.

"If we can understand what part of that genetic makeup is the trigger, then we can identify a way to turn that trigger off," she said.

To get to the point of medical revelations, her team will need samples. Doctors on the ground in Kenya have warned them: the cultural barrier will be tough to tackle.

"The breast is more than just a breast here. The breast here has a lot of cultural value to it," Dr. Naftali Busakhala said in an interview via Skype.

Busakhala said there will also be concern from the women at the hospital that they will contract breast cancer by agreeing to give a breast tissue sample.

Those challenges are exactly why the Komen team's mission changed after the site visit. Storniolo said the goal changed from gathering samples to offering breast exams and education. That way, the Kenyan women will better understand why tissue samples are so important.

"They will be given an opportunity to donate tissue if they'd like, and obviously we hope that many do.  But, there will be no pressure to do so at all," Storniolo said.

Long term, Storniolo hopes the partnership leads to mammography in Kenya. Right now, breast care is very basic.

Storniolo and her team, plus 30 volunteers who will pay their own way, will travel to Kenya in January. They hope to come home with more than 200 samples from Kenyan women.

After visiting with doctors and nurses on the ground in Kenya, Storniolo is very optimistic.

"What interestingly has turned out to be universal is women will do anything to help each other, to help their families, that potentially with their help, their families may not have to go through this," she said.

Storniolo said it may be 10 years before a cure is found but that this is a good start.

Stay with RTV6 for more on this group's mission in Kenya and medical research that will follow.

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