Seattle radiologist wins international GE cancer challenge; Funding will launch breast cancer early detection project in Uganda

SEATTLE – March 27, 2012 – With seed funding from an international grant competition sponsored by GE, Seattle radiologist Constance Lehman, M.D., Ph.D., 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, a member of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a professor of radiology at the University of Washington, 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.

“In developing countries, breast cancer is detected much later than in countries with established screening programs,” Lehman said. “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 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. 

The project will be conducted via the Uganda Cancer Institute/Fred Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance, which was formed in 2008 to research and treat cancers in the low-resource country.

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, combatting 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, according to Lehman.

The GE challenge generated more than 500 applications from 200 academic institutions and researchers in 40 countries. Each application was in the form of a video.

The winners were selected by an independent judging panel that included GE executives and venture capital partners, and several leading health care officials, including Andrew Von Eschenbach, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and former director of the National Cancer Institute.

Dean Forbes

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