South Carolina’s Sea Island population may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why African-Americans develop and die from certain cancers at a rate higher than Caucasians.
Researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center and South Carolina State University will be working to find the answers thanks to a landmark grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.
The four-year grant of more than $800,000 will be used to establish the South Carolina Disparities Research Center, which will investigate cancer disparities. “The people in the Sea Islands are the most genetically homogenous group of blacks in the Unised States,” principal investigator Dr. Marvella Ford told South Carolina Radio Network, “Genetically, they’re actually more similar to blacks in Africa than to other African-Americans.”
Ford says it is easier to find genetic markers associated with cancer risks in a more homogeneous population like the Sea Island population than it is in a more heterogeneous population.
Ford says there are approximately 250,000 people of Sea Island ancestry in South Carolina– commonly known as Gullah. They were able to maintain their homogeneity because they resided mostly on the barrier islands that were long isolated from the mainland. Ford says the study will also be examining African American populations in the general population of South Carolina, as well as populations of European ancestry.
Along with examining genetic factors, Ford says they will also take into account other factors such as access to healthcare, diet, and socio-economic status.
Ford says the research will primarily probe prostate and breast cancer. Ford points out that, in South Carolina, African-American men die of prostate cancer at a rate three times that of Caucasian men and African-American women die at a rate 1.5 times the rate of Caucasian women.
A unique element of the grant is the formation of an advisory group, including Sea Island community advocates, which will help select research projects to be conducted. Ford says it is pivotal to the research to find out if certain populations have a higher prevalence of genetic markers that, for example, may be associated with DNA repair that protect cells from outside factors such as tobacco use or factors associated with diet.
Ford says with that information, treatments may be developed that may turn on those markers or help them work better so people can fight cancer more easily and effectively.
AUDIO: Ford says the state’s Sea Island population is the key to the research