Notre Dame and Moi University join research efforts to shed light on breast cancer

Author: William G. Gilroy

Sharon Stack, left, Rispah Torrorey and Laurie Littlepage

from left: Sharon Stack, Rispah Torrorey, and Laurie Littlepage

Breast cancer is a major health problem worldwide, and the incidence of the disease is rising across Africa.

A new joint research effort between the University of Notre Dame’s Eck Institute for Global Health and the Harper Cancer Research Institute and a Kenyan doctoral student from Moi University is examining the unique manifestation of breast cancer in Kenya.

In 2010 and 2011, Katherine Taylor, Eck Institute’s director of operations, visited Moi University Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya, where she met Rispah Torrorey, a doctoral student, and her faculty adviser, Simeon Kipkoech Mining. The value of partnering with Notre Dame to expand Torrorey’s training and to perform more in-depth analysis of the breast tumor samples she was collecting was immediately recognized.

Hosted by the Eck Institute, Torrorey first visited Notre Dame last fall. Although she met with more than a dozen Notre Dame faculty, it was Sharon Stack, Anne F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of the Harper Cancer Institute, and assistant professors Laurie Littlepage and Jenifer Prosperi who shared Torrorey’s passion to contribute to research that may ultimately improve the lives of women with breast and ovarian cancers.

Stack immediately set out to find funds to support the advanced genetic characterization of the breast tumor samples that Torrorey was collecting in Kenya. She was able to quickly obtain a grant from the Walther Cancer Foundation. With the grant and with additional resources from the Eck Institute and Harper Institute, Torrorey has returned to Notre Dame with the tumor samples and a rigorous schedule of training and research ahead of her.

“Working together on this important project with Rispah provides a unique opportunity for Harper scientists and the team at Moi to pool their expertise to address a major global health problem,” Stack said. “Uncovering the molecular details behind the unusually aggressive nature of these breast tumors in the African population will provide us novel insight into the mechanisms of breast cancer progression that could ultimately help women worldwide. Our hope is that this initial collaboration will form the template for further studies on which the Moi and Harper teams can work together to address area of mutual need in the global fight against cancer.”

“Cancer incidence in Kenya and other parts of Africa is rising at such an alarming rate that anyone would be concerned,” Torrorey said. “Breast cancer in our population used to be a problem of elderly women, but now it has turned to be common in younger women, even at 15 years, and is also seen more in men than before.

“After reading many studies, it is clear that breast cancer in Africans is likely to appear earlier in life compared to Caucasians, is more aggressive and seems to be more basal-like and hence is node-negative and may be expressing different genes that need to be carefully looked at. These unique features of breast cancer manifestation seem to translate to the poor clinical outcomes recorded in our setting.”

“Breast tumor characterization by looking at genes has not been done in Kenya,” Taylor said. “Torrorey brought tumor samples from Kenya to be analyzed by state-of-the-art techniques available at Notre Dame and Harper. She will work with the team to learn and apply these advanced technologies in order to characterize the types of tumors found in Kenya. The goal is to identify the unique characteristics that might allow for targeting more effective treatments.”

“My biggest dream is to be a player on the team which will build research capacity in our institution and Kenya as a country,” Torrorey said. “This is because I strongly believe that we need to develop research programs that are committed to carrying out high-quality basic and translational research on health issues of which cancer is the major one in our setting. With a collaborator like Notre Dame, we could learn from and also compare information in order to build a strong research network between the USA and Kenya on areas of mutual interest and priority.”

Both institutes will seek additional funding to extend the research collaboration to other doctoral students.

AMPATH (Academic Model for Providing Access to Healthcare), led by the Indiana University School of Medicine, is a consortium of North American academic centers, including the University of Notre Dame. All are working in partnership with Moi University, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital and the government of Kenya. Notre Dame’s role in the partnership is to build equitable partnerships that advance basic science research capacity at Moi University and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. The Harper Institute and Eck Institute bring Notre Dame’s expertise in basic science to the AMPATH partnership.

The Eck Institute for Global Health is a University-wide enterprise that recognizes health as a fundamental human right and endeavors to promote research, training and service to advance health standards for all people, especially people in low- and middle-income countries who are disproportionately impacted by preventable diseases.

Researchers in the Harper Cancer Institute are dedicated to conducting innovative and integrative research that confronts the complex challenges of cancer. The programmatic structure fosters multidisciplinary cancer research by promoting interactions among research groups with distinct expertise and by training young scientists to work across scientific fields. Clinical partnerships provide key translational insight and strengthen the mission of discovery.

Originally published by William G. Gilroy at on August 29, 2013.