Facing cancer disparities head-on: An interview with Svasti Haricharan

| Written by Miles Martin
Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D.

Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D., and her lab are revealing why more Black women get breast cancer, and they’re also telling us what we can do about it. 

Svasti Haricharan, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, is tackling one of the most pernicious problems facing cancer researchers today—why some people, particularly disenfranchised groups such as Black women, get cancer more frequently and more severely than others. For years, the answer has been explained away by differences in lifestyle or socioeconomic status, but Haricharan’s research, published in Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology, is demonstrating that the real answer is much more complicated. 

What were your findings?
We found differences between the breast cells of white and Black women that help explain why Black women experience higher mortality from ER+ breast cancer. These included differences in the expression of specific genes and consistent molecular differences in the cellular signals controlling how fast cells can grow. These differences were present in both healthy and cancerous cells. 

Why is it important to study breast cancer disparities?
Black and white women have about the same incidence of ER+ breast cancer, but Black women are 42% more likely to die from it. This is just one example of the type of glaring health disparity we see in Black people and other marginalized communities. Unfortunately, these issues have been severely neglected by the research community. Or worse still, they are attributed entirely to lifestyle factors, which often shift the blame to the patients themselves. 

What do your findings mean for women with breast cancer?
The immediate implication is that we can act on this information to improve diagnostics and treatment for Black women with breast cancer. Our results suggest that at least some Black women could benefit from being treated earlier with CDK inhibitors, which are drugs we already have and understand. In the bigger picture, we’re showing that there are internal factors at play in health disparities that develop based on people’s lived experiences. We’re going to have to really dive in and explore these factors if we want to make any real progress in precision medicine. Everybody deserves care that is tailored to their molecular makeup as closely as possible.

What are some of the challenges still facing researchers working on health disparities?
The simplest answer is getting the money to do the research. We’re fortunate that we’ve found something here that’s quickly actionable, but it’s not always going to work out like that. This isn’t about just a few more studies. The types of differences we’ve found here are likely present in other types of cancer and in other groups. The more we look, the more we’re going to find. Funders and researchers alike need to be willing to prioritize this type of research going forward, or we’ll never see real change. 

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