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Gene flaws common in black breast cancer patients

CHICAGO -- Gene flaws that raise the risk of breast cancer are surprisingly common in black women with the disease, according to the first comprehensive testing in this racial group.

The study found that one-fifth of these women have BRCA mutations, a problem usually associated with women of Eastern European Jewish descent but recently highlighted by the plight of Angelina Jolie.

The study may help explain why black women have higher rates of breast cancer at young ages -- and a worse chance of survival.

Doctors say these patients should be offered genetic counseling and may want to consider more frequent screening and prevention options, which can range from hormone-blocking pills to breast removal, as Jolie chose.

"We were surprised at our results," said the study leader, Dr. Jane Churpek, a cancer specialist at the University of Chicago. Too few black women have been included in genetic studies in the past and most have not looked for mutations to the degree this one did, she said.

Jolie revealed a few weeks ago that she carries a defective BRCA1 gene, giving her up to an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent risk for ovarian cancer.

In the United States, 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be due to bad BRCA genes. Among breast cancer patients, BRCA mutations are carried by 5 percent of whites and 12 percent of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews. Rates in other groups are not as well known.

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The study involved 249 black breast cancer patients from Chicago area hospitals. Many had breast cancer at a young age, and half had a family history of the disease.

Gene flaws were found in 56, or 22 percent, of study participants; 46 of them involved BRCA1 or BRCA2 and the rest were less commonly mutated genes.

Harmful mutations were found in 30 percent of black women with "triple-negative breast cancer" -- tumors whose growth is not fueled by estrogen, progesterone or the gene that the drug Herceptin targets. Doctors have long known that these harder-to-treat cases are more common in black women.

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