Edition 2015

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Stopping the Spread of Cancer

Researchers track high rates of breast and cervical cancer among Hispanic women on U.S.-Mexico border
by Bob Nosbisch

Husband and wife John Moraros and Yelena Bird work side by side in a lab

Yelena Bird, right, and John Moraros work side by side in a biochemistry laboratory. The husband and wife team are both medical doctors, and each is working toward a PhD in biochemistry.

Hispanic women on the U.S.-Mexico border are three times more likely to die of cervical cancer and also more likely to die of breast cancer than women who live elsewhere.

The husband and wife team of John Moraros and Yelena Bird, each with medical and master’s degrees, works in New Mexico State University’s Department of Health Science, tracking those cancers supported by $75,000 grants from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation.

When women are not regularly screened, disease is not diagnosed until it has reached an advanced stage. The treatment options have limited effectiveness at this time.

The cause of cervical cancer is generally acknowledged to be sexually transmitted infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). While HPV does not always lead to cervical cancer, 10 percent of the women on the border get abnormal Pap smears and of this number, another 10 percent have HPV that can potentially lead to cancer.

The mortality rate of cervical cancer is substantially higher in Mexico than in the U.S., Moraros said. However, the border rates surpass the rates of either country’s interior. Moraros attributed this to the discomfort of pelvic exams, language barriers and financial problems that prevent many Latinas from regularly visiting their gynecologists.

Moraros analyzes HPV DNA to identify current infections and determine the types of HPV most prevalent in southern New Mexico and the northern Chihuahua border area. He also determines the HPV viral load and uses serum antibodies to characterize HPV infections. By using Pap smears and colposcopies, the correlation between the presence of HPV DNA and the severity of cervical cancer can be determined.

Cervical cancer can be prevented by using relatively inexpensive screening and treatment technologies.

Moraros added that young women must practice safe sex and use protection, preferably condoms, because birth control pills, tubal ligations and vasectomies do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, Yelena Bird studies samples of breast tissue from women with hereditary breast cancer on the U.S.-Mexico border. Molecular biological markers of gene expression are used to determine a woman’s overall risk of developing the disease when breast cancer runs in the woman’s family. These methods are chosen because they are more efficient at detecting abnormal breast cells than mammography or examination of cells or tissue under a microscope.

One of every eight women in the U.S. will get breast cancer. The rates on the border have become even higher, where it is estimated that one of every five Latinas will get the disease. A woman with sporadic cancer may be the only one in her family with the disease while the more aggressive familial breast cancer may run in the family.

Mammography is currently the best available approach for early detection, Bird said. However, the optimal screening regimen in high-risk women, such as the ones who have had a first-degree relative such as mother, sister or aunt diagnosed with breast cancer, is not yet known. Therefore, the need to develop molecular screening methods to augment mammography for the early detection of breast tumors, particularly in high-risk women, is critical.

A woman’s chances of getting breast cancer increase if she is obese, since estrogen lodges in the breast’s fatty tissue, especially in a post-menopausal woman. A woman who never had children and therefore has higher levels of estrogen is also at risk. Women who start their menstrual cycles before they are 12 years old or who have their menopause after the age of 55 also have a greater chance of getting the disease. Also, smoking and alcohol usage increase the risks of breast cancer.

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