UAB professor receives grant to study precursor to multiple myeloma in African Americans

Written by: Christina Crowe
Media contact: Anna Jones

B cell and antibodies, computer illustration.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Elizabeth Brown, Ph.D., has received a $3.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to support her investigation of the epigenetic contribution to the risk of a condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, known as MGUS, in African Americans. MGUS is a condition in which an abnormal protein formed within the bone marrow is found in the blood. MGUS is a precursor to multiple myeloma, the most common blood cancer affecting African Americans. Multiple myeloma is characterized by the prolonged accumulation and survival of antibody-producing tumor cells. The disease has a median survival rate of about five years.

“The incidence of MGUS is notably higher in African Americans compared to European Americans,” said Brown, a professor in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology in the Department of PathologyUAB School of Medicine. “However, our understanding of this disparity remains unclear.” 

Brown’s study will be used to examine unrecognized genetic and environmental factors that play a role in this complex disease by employing recent advances in epigenomics. 

“These tools will provide the opportunity to characterize change in gene activity due to past environmental exposures,” Brown, a senior scientist and co-leader of the Cancer Control and Population Studies Program at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, said.

This project constitutes the largest investigation to date of the epigenetic effects that influence risk and progression of MGUS to MM and differences by race, for which African Americans have the greatest burden of disease. It includes more than 3,000 participants from nine United States-based study sites, the intramural National Cancer Institute and the International Lymphoma Epidemiology Consortium. Brown’s work will make use of existing clinical data and biospecimens from these groups and enroll new participants. 

“Not everyone with MGUS progresses to myeloma, and this is key,” Brown said. “We need better clinical tools to differentiate who among MGUS patients are at high or low risk for progressing to multiple myeloma. We are looking to discover new biomarkers to improve our ability to identify high-risk MGUS patients leading to better surveillance and treatment of these patients early and to promote a longer, better life.”

The funding, a five-year U01 from the National Cancer Institute, evolved in response to the Multiple Myeloma Disparities Provocative Questions, which arose from a Myeloma Disparities Think Tank in which Brown participated in 2018. This new grant is a means for her to continue funding for the Integrative Molecular And Genetic Epidemiology study of myeloma, established in 2008 with support from the National Cancer Institute in order to better understand the causes of multiple myeloma and the pre‐malignant conditions that sometimes lead to this devastating blood cancer.

Brown, who has been in the Department of Pathology since 2014, holds additional research grants to study lupus and multiple myeloma, her areas of expertise. 

For more information about this landmark study or how to enroll, call 205-996-6444. 

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