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UTHSC’s Athena Starlard-Davenport Examines Devastating Effects of Breast Cancer in African-American Women


A new investigation from Athena Starlard-Davenport, PhD, reports that African-American women are not only more susceptible to the most aggressive types of breast cancer, but also more likely to die from breast cancer, compared to women from other racial groups.

Dr. Athena Starlard-Davenport (Photo by Allen Gillespie/ UTHSC)

The assistant professor of Genetics, Genomics, and Informatics in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) recently published a paper identifying racial differences in specific breast tissue microbiomes between non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white women in the journal Scientific Reports. Dr. Starlard-Davenport and a team of colleagues used gene sequencing of tissue samples to find distinct features in breast tissue bacteria and determine if they relate to race, tumor stage, or tumor subtype. Results showed that African-American women have a more distinct microbiome in their breast cancer tumors, making them more vulnerable to breast cancer’s effects. Dr. Starlard-Davenport has made it her mission to find a reason for this, but explains that her upcoming research will be difficult.

“Breast cancer is not one disease. There are many tumor subtypes that strike pre-menopausal vs. post-menopausal women differently,” Dr. Starlard-Davenport said. “Not every subtype has the same risk factors, nor do drugs work the same in the different subtypes.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women and around 200,000 new breast cancer cases are diagnosed in the United States each year on average. Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive tumor subtype that does not respond to hormonal cancer treatments, is more likely to be diagnosed in non-Hispanic black women compared to white women, contributing to their lower breast cancer survival rate.

As of now, Dr. Starlard-Davenport’s focus is researching the role that microbes, or bacteria that normally live in the gut and organs, can play in breast cancer, especially in minorities. She believes any research findings will be significant, as health disparities among African-American women have been overlooked in some previous breast cancer research.

“What’s important about our study is that while a few reports have been previously published on the breast microbiome, these projects did not include non-Hispanic black women in their studies,” Dr. Starlard-Davenport said. “We urgently needed to fill that gap in our knowledge to potentially help with predicting risk, determining best treatments (i.e. personalized medicine), or finding new therapies. That being said, larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Dr. Starlard-Davenport’s paper entitled “Distinct microbial communities that differ by race, stage, or breast-tumor subtype in breast tissues of non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic White women” was published in August. She served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Medical Genetics, Cancer Control & Population Sciences at the University of Arkansas Medical Center (UAMS), before joining UTHSC as a full-time faculty member in 2016. Dr. Starlard-Davenport is currently a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and earned her PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from UAMS in 2007.

The paper’s other lead authors were Alana Smith, senior research assistant in the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics; and Joseph F. Pierre, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. Other co-authors at UTHSC include Elizabeth Tolley, PhD, professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine, and Lu Lu, PhD, professor in the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics. Liza Makowski, PhD, professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at UTHSC; Gregory Vidal, MD, from West Cancer Center; and Beverly Lyn-Cook, PhD, Biochemical Toxicologist with the FDA/National Center for Toxicological Research in Arkansas, were also co-authors in this study.