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UH researchers study aggressive breast cancer in Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders

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Naoto T. Ueno and Xiaoping Wang led a study about inflammatory breast cancer. Photos courtesy: UH

University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center Director Naoto T. Ueno and Xiaoping Wang with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center led a study about inflammatory breast cancer that was recently published in Science Advances.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women diagnosed with breast cancer have higher rates of Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), which is rare but the most aggressive form of breast cancer compared to other racial/ethnic populations in Hawaiʻi.

Inflammatory breast cancer is unresponsive to conventional breast cancer treatments due in part to an immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME), the ecosystem that surrounds a tumor inside the body. 

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The researchers found a method to reduce the inhibition of the TME on the immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI), a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Surrounding of the tumor, TME, can make immunotherapy ineffective in killing cancer cells. The study shows that changing the TME by targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) using an anti-EGFR therapy can make the immunotherapy work better and diminish more cancer cells. 

“Our group’s exciting results examine how the surrounding cancer environment contributes to the tumor’s aggressiveness,” said Ueno, who began this research with Wang at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “I am very excited to bring this type of research to Hawaiʻi so that we can help more people by understanding the disease. It is not only about [inflammatory breast cancer], but understanding why breast cancer spreads and why it can be very aggressive.”

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Ueno plans to study the therapeutic regimen identified from the study’s findings and translate it to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander patients with inflammatory breast cancer, which will improve treatment options and disease outcomes for these patients.

This will be the first study to address the observed disparities in risk and disease outcome for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women. 

Ueno most recently served as the executive director of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for 30 years. He created a comprehensive research program and clinic devoted to the type of cancer, which, under his leadership, emerged as the world’s largest and most renowned for rare breast cancer.

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