Diverse Tissue Microarray Fosters Equity in Breast Cancer Research

University of Illinois Cancer Center members can request access to a newly created tissue microarray (TMA) developed to facilitate breast cancer research that involves analysis of tumors from diverse patients.

The TMA was developed as a collaboration among the Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Working Group (BCWG), the UI Health Department of Pathology and the University of Illinois Biorepository (UIB).  It includes representative samples from a consecutive series of 156 breast cancer patients who had surgery at UI Health from 2013 to 2019.

TMAs can include hundreds of tumor samples on a single microscopy slide, allowing researchers to compare them far more efficiently than if each slide included only one tumor, explained Dr. Peter Gann, Cancer Center associate director, shared resources, and professor of pathology at UIC College of Medicine. TMAs contain tissue that is no longer needed for patient care and all samples are de-identified to protect privacy.

The diversity of UI Health’s patient population makes this TMA distinctly valuable because it includes cases from patients of races and ethnicities that are traditionally underrepresented in scientific research. The tissue samples also reflect various stages and breast cancer subtypes, and in many cases have matched benign or metastatic tissue. Slides made from the TMA are suitable for immunohistochemical or other types of staining for molecular targets.

“Addressing cancer disparities is our mission as a cancer center. We are committed to researching molecular differences in tumors that will lead to better outcomes for patients and improve the scientific understanding of why some populations bear a disproportionate cancer burden,” Gann said.

He added that the TMA and its access policy were made possible with critical support from Dr. Frederick Behm, MD, head of the department of pathology, and Debra Tonetti, PhD, a Cancer Center member who leads the Breast Cancer Working Group. The BCWG TMA was built by Dr. Virgilia Macias, MD, research assistant professor of pathology, who has constructed dozens of them during her tenure at UIC.

The BCWG TMA was initially organized by medical oncologist Kent Hoskins, MD, who investigates disparities in breast cancer mortality among Black women. Making the samples available to all Cancer Center researchers through a fair and transparent review process is intended to increase the scientific impact of this valuable resource, Gann said.

The team is preparing to build additional TMAs that Cancer Center researchers can access, according to Tonetti, PhD, professor of pharmacology and interim head of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the UIC College of Pharmacy.

“As a cancer center, it is our collective vision to create resources, including additional TMAs, which add to the scientific understanding of cancer by accurately reflecting the diversity of cancer patients,” Tonetti said. “There’s a shared pride in every milestone that brings this vision closer to reality.”

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