Genetic research has steadily been gaining popularity in the field of biomedical research, as scientists have seen how understanding a patient’s genetic makeup can ultimately help them create personalized treatment – ones that would yield better and longer lasting benefits, and cause less adverse effects. A group of researchers from the Winship Cancer Institute is turning the focus of their genetic research to multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that affects the immune system’s plasma cells. Statistics show this type of cancer is 2-3 times more common in African Americans than in Caucasians. In an effort to better understand the reasons behind this fact, the team turned to a woman named Veronica Reynolds.
When Reynolds was in her mid-50s, she began to feel severe pain. While she thought it was the type that would eventually go away if she got enough rest, it only became worse. One doctor did not take her complaint of pain seriously, while another only prescribed her pain medication that didn’t help. Two years later, the pain only worsened. At Grady Memorial Hospital, she was surprised to find out her bones were actually fractured from prolonged bone degradation. After a series of other tests, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and referred to a hematologist/oncologist at Winship – Dr. Leon Bernal-Mizrachi.
Reynolds is one of over a thousand African Americans who play a crucial role in a large-scale genome sequencing of patients with multiple myeloma, along with another group of 7,084 without the disease. Currently, the study has successfully enlisted a third of its target number of participants, and has already begun producing notable findings of which patients are more at risk of relapse.
The team is also investigating diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as African Americans are noted to be less at risk of developing this type of blood cancer compared to Caucasians. However, those that do get diagnosed with DLBCL are found to be younger and with a worse prognosis, compared to their Caucasian counterparts. This aspect of genetic research is headed by Christopher R. Flowers at Winship, who draws from what is known now from Dr. Bernal-Mizrachi’s research.
According to Dr. Bernal-Mizrachi, today’s drugs are already changing how physicians approach racial disparities in healthcare. For a long time, African American multiple myeloma patients were thought to respond less favourably to autologous stem cell transplants, but an Emory study recently completed evidenced new maintenance drugs are able to improve treatment outcomes for both Caucasians and African Americans.