Lehman launches Ugandan breast cancer early detection project

International GE cancer challenge nets seed funding for Connie Lehman, who aims to raise breast cancer survival rates through ultrasound use in rural women
Dr. Connie Lehman with Ugandan women and children at a breast cancer information session conducted last July at the Kasangati Health Center IV in Kyadondo County (just outside of Kampala). Photo by Ksenia Koon

With seed funding from an international grant competition sponsored by GE, radiologist Dr. Constance Lehman of the Public Health Sciences Division will launch a pilot project to study the effectiveness of portable ultrasound for early detection of breast cancer among women in rural Uganda. Her project was one of five chosen for initial funding as part of the GE "Healthymagination Cancer Challenge."

Lehman will lead a project in Ugandan communities to increase awareness of the importance of early detection of breast cancer and to train local health care providers on the use of ultrasound to diagnose breast cancer. Women with suspicious lumps will be referred to the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala for further tests and treatment.

Breaking barriers to breast cancer care

"In developing countries, breast cancer is detected much later than in countries with established screening programs," said Lehman, whose primary affiliation is at the University of Washington. "In addition to social stigma and shame associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, many barriers impact Ugandan women's access to care. By the time these women arrive at the Uganda Cancer Institute, in most cases their breast cancers are advanced, and treatment options are limited. At this time, most women diagnosed with breast cancer in Uganda do not survive."

Compounding the situation, women in Uganda are more likely to have triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer that is more common in younger women and is more difficult to treat, according to Lehman, who is also director of medical imaging at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Lehman's study aims to determine whether, in developing countries such as Uganda, breast ultrasound, coupled with breast education and clinical breast exam, can provide an economical and efficient way to diagnose breast cancer at an early stage-and ultimately, help more women survive.  

Lehman will conduct the project via the Uganda Cancer Institute/Fred Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance. Formed in 2008, the alliance researches and treats cancers in the low-resource country.

The 'Healthymagination' challenge

GE's challenge was for ideas that could help doctors better understand the molecular similarities between breast cancer and other solid tumors with a particular focus on triple-negative breast cancer, which is less responsive to standard estrogen-blocking treatments.  The company awarded $100,000 each to the five winning applicants as seed money; each may be eligible for additional funding.  

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women worldwide and is recognized as a growing threat to the health of women in the developing world. As health programs worldwide have had success in improving nutrition, combating maternal and infant mortality, and treating infectious disease, there is an urgent need to also combat the rising incidence of cancer deaths in developing countries, Lehman said.

Watch Lehman's Uganda project video

The GE challenge generated more than 500 video applications from 200 academic institutions and researchers in 40 countries. Lehman and the other winners were selected by an independent judging panel that included GE executives and venture capital partners, and several leading health care officials.

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