Exploring ethnic diversity in women's cancer on a multi-cultural scale

Scientists, and clinicians from the UK, India and Africa as well as representatives from industry recently joined forces for a workshop held by the University of Birmingham India Institute into the causes and development of cancer among ethnic minority women.

Funded by MRC Proximity to Discovery, the Ethnic Diversity in Cancer Genomics workshop was aimed at exploring ideas that could help further research into breast, ovarian and uterine cancer – the three most common cancers in women of non-Caucasian ethnicity. 

At present, very little information into the risk of cancer and how it develops amongst ethnic minority women exists, with the vast majority of research relating to Caucasian women.

Global perspectives

“We held this workshop to work together on why breast and ovarian cancer seems to occur at a younger age in Indian women, as well as in Black women and why the proportion of aggressive cancer is higher in these women compared to white women,” explains Mrs Sudha Sundar, Senior Lecturer and Gynaecological Oncology Consultant at the University of Birmingham, who led the workshop.

“It enabled us to see perspectives from across the world and how they are mirrored and amplified by some of the challenges faced by the multi-ethnic cohorts of women with cancer in the UK.”

Several key topics were discussed throughout the day, including:

  • The current state of molecular and pathological research in the UK, India and Africa
  • Progressing initial collaborations between India and the UK to investigate the clinical and genomic differences in cancers among women in the Punjab region of India compared to West Midlands women of Punjabi descent
  • What constitutes ethnicity and the evolving societal changes generated by migration, inter-group and inter-caste marriages in determining ethnicity
  • The cultural barriers that may prevent the uptake of cancer genetic testing in minority ethnic communities and how we could raise awareness in these groups

“The take-home message for me, was how poorly ethnicity data is captured in the national datasets with missing data in about 20 to 30% of patients. We also need more sophisticated data capture and analysis to account for the fact that mixed ancestry is more common in modern day Britain,” added Mrs Sundar.

Greater collaborative insight

A total of 35 participants attended the workshop from a wide range of organisations, including the University of Birmingham; West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory; University Hospitals Birmingham; Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh, National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) in Kolkata; Kenyan Cancer Registry and the Mulago National Referral Hospital. Members of the public were also invited to help to determine the best way to share this research within the local community.

Among the attendees was Dr Radhika Srinivasan, a Professor from the Department of Cytology and Gynaecological Pathology at PGIMER: “We were able to understand each other better, particularly in the context of the immediate proposal of evaluating breast cancer and 23 other genes in Indian Punjabi women with breast/ovarian cancer as a pilot project to establish feasibility and connectivity of cancer genetic studies.”

While Obstetrics and Gynaecology Professor, Dr Vanita Suri, also from PGIMER, commented: “It was interesting and beneficial to work together on this project and come out with new findings that will help us in changing our practices, which will ultimately help patients in both the UK and India. We’re looking forward to working together on many such projects.”

Next steps

Funding has been granted by the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Global Innovation and the MRC Proximity to Discovery, which will enable matched pilot studies in India and the UK to take place. This multi-ethnic cohort study will involve conducting sample collections and molecular analysis in both countries.

Once complete, it’s proposed that the research will be expanded to other ethnic groups in a bid to help aid early detection and the prevention and treatment of cancer.

For more information about this pioneering research see the Lancet Oncology paper or our Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences. We are also proud that this research is featured to our Indian audience on the Indian Express publication.  

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