(SACRAMENTO)

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center will soon have new tools, including a “mammovan,” to improve breast health and early cancer detection in underserved women living in rural communities.

Breast cancer initiatives spearheaded by the cancer center received $10 million from a class-action lawsuit against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. The lawsuit alleged Wyeth misrepresented the benefits and risks of its hormone replacement therapy medications for women. In cases where money remains after eligible class members receive their claim payments, courts can distribute those funds to charitable causes in what’s referred to as a cy pres award.

Women from marginalized communities to benefit

Priority for the funding went to projects focused on women of color and marginalized communities who traditionally are underrepresented in research and have unique disease risks. Four UC Davis School of Medicine proposals received funding, including the two projects focused on breast cancer.

Underrepresented populations, including Latinas and other women of color as well as women living in rural areas, are at higher risk of advanced breast cancer and breast cancer death. 

“The cancer center is pleased to roll out these groundbreaking projects, which promise to make a positive impact on the health of women from marginalized communities who for too long have suffered from limited access to routine screenings and care,” said Primo “Lucky” Lara Jr., director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Projects include “mammovan” and free genetic testing

One of the initiatives will debut a “mammovan.” The mobile van will provide free mammograms to women in underserved communities in Northern California and the Central Valley. 

Project leader Miglioretti will develop precision breast cancer screening research program focused on racially/ethnically diverse low-income women.

“Screening mammography reduces breast cancer mortality by about 25% through early detection. However, more than 30% of women are inadequately screened and rates are even lower among marginalized populations,” said project leader Diana Miglioretti, professor and division chief of biostatistics at UC Davis. “For example, only 34% of uninsured Latina women are up to date on routine screening mammography.”

Over a five-year period, Miglioretti and her team will develop a precision breast cancer screening research program focused on racially/ethnically diverse low-income women. Along with providing on-site mammography, the “mammovan” will also serve as a data collection hub, using leading-edge genomics and artificial intelligence to predict breast cancer risk. Blood and saliva samples will be taken to measure hormone levels as well as exposure to chemicals (such as those found in pesticides and wildfire smoke). Bilingual and bicultural health educators, along with community health workers, will provide health education and help ensure women with positive findings receive timely follow-up care.

Second project offers free precision medicine

Another project, conducted in the same marginalized communities, will offer free genetic counseling and testing for up to 500 women diagnosed with breast cancer. The effort will be led by Luis Carvajal-Carmona, the cancer center’s associate director for basic science and founder/co-director of the Latinos United for Cancer Health Advancement (LUCHA). The project aims to identify patients with inherited mutations and improve breast cancer outcomes. 

Luis Carvajal-Carmona and his team will provide free genetic counseling and testing for up to 500 women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Carvajal-Carmona said the project will be the first to evaluate the benefits of universal genetic testing in marginalized and highly diverse communities in the state. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that universal testing, which involves offering genetic counseling and testing to all breast cancer patients regardless of their family history, is a cost-effective alternative to family history-based testing. 

“The testing will also help us identify the most common mutations among patients from these communities, which will help boost effective breast cancer treatments,” said Carvajal-Carmona. 

Participating patients will have access to state-of-the-art precision medicine approaches that consider a person’s genes and their environment as well as their lifestyle and behaviors. 

“Our study will hopefully offer these patients the best shot to beat cancer,” said Carvajal-Carmona. “While this project offers free precision medicine that is tailored culturally and linguistically, it will also help advance science for the benefit of all patients by providing valuable research.” 

The breast cancer initiatives will start sometime in 2022 when formal enrollment in the studies open to participants.