Preventing Breast Cancer in Post-Partum Women

New Pilot Grant Awarded to UH Postdoctoral Fellow Samaneh Karami

For many women, the span of time after childbirth is perhaps the most vulnerable and stressful chapters of their lives—from breastfeeding to weaning. To further complicate this significant life change, post-partum women experience a marked increase in breast cancer development for a decade after childbirth, according to Cancer Research.

Samaneh Karami

Through a HEALTH-RCMI Pilot Program Award, University of Houston’s Samaneh Karami, Ph.D., will explore human models for early detection of postpartum breast cancer in at-risk minorities. Karami’s overarching objective is to develop a new targeted breast cancer therapy specifically tailored to a women’s genetic variations. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death from cancer among women, according to the American Cancer Society.

According to Karami, each pregnancy increases the risk of breast cancer by 10 to 30%, for at least a decade after childbirth. Breast cancer that develops within 5–10 years of parity between 35–45 is known as postpartum breast cancer. Older age at pregnancy and higher parity number are considered two risk factors in postpartum breast cancer.

“Notably, breast cancer tends to unevenly impact young minority women,” sai Karam, who is a postdoctoral fellow at UH’s Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling. “Epidemiological studies show that African American and Hispanic women have a higher chance of aggressive breast cancer development during childbearing age of 30–45, tend to have higher parity compared to non-Hispanic women.”

The reasons behind the increased vulnerability to postpartum breast cancer in women from specific racial backgrounds are unknown.

“This when I felt the urge to understand the molecular mechanisms driving this disparity in postpartum breast cancer development,” Karami said.

With support from HEALTH-RCMI, Karami spearheaded a new study entitled, Human Model for Early Detection of Postpartum Breast Cancer in At-Risk Minorities. This initiative was funded $50,000 by NIMHD and HEALTH-RCMI.

In her innovative research model, Karami plans to use samples of breast milk and tissues from various women with racial background as part of an early detection system. On a more profound level, Karami hopes to provide women with accessible, affordable breast cancer screening platform. Through this pilot study, Karami hopes to explore why African American and Hispanic women develop postpartum breast cancer and what is the correlation to pregnancy and post-partum by developing 3D models.

“I want to develop a 3D research model specifically from milk samples from women with different racial backgrounds” Karami added. “The 3D organoid models will mimic the morphology and functionality of a breast. This will allow us to study how breasts undergo change during pregnancy, lactation and postpartum. Also, we can explore how these changes contribute to an increased risk of postpartum breast cancer. We hope to identify the molecular signatures associated with these women.”

Karami hopes her research will transform cancer screenings for minority women in the future.

“Minority women have less access to screening,” Karami said. “Mammograms are expensive, and some women must wait to get a mammogram until they are 40 years old. So, there is big chance these young minority women are developing postpartum breast cancer earlier before they undergo the mammogram screening.”

Designing a preventative platform screening for women is one of Karami’s most salient goals.

“The standard rule for preventing cancer is early detection. This model has the potential to become a prognostic tool for early detection of breast cancer in young women, specifically women with racial disparity,” Karami added.

Instrumental to this project were the significant contributions from Karami’s UH mentors. She credits Dr. Tasneem Bawa-Khalfe, associate professor of biology and biochemistry, and Dr. Fatima Merchant, professor of engineering technology, among her esteemed mentors and advisors.

“Their support and guidance have been invaluable,” Karami said. “Additionally, I am deeply appreciative of the HEALTH-RCMI program, particularly under the guidance of Dr. Gorniak for their provision and assistance. In summary, I am profoundly grateful for the multifaceted support of the HEALTH-RCMI including the IDC (Investigator Development Core) and the Community Advisory Board, that propel my research endeavors forward.”

- Alison Medley, UH Health Research Institute