Avon donates $2.2 million for cancer research

Northwestern’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center received a $2.2 million donation March 8 from Avon Products Foundation Breast Cancer Research and Care Program to fund breast cancer treatment for medically uninsured women and further research about breast cancer.

The gift will allow the center to expand its treatment programs and to create a state-of-the-art tissue bank for research.

“This is a very important gift for us,” said Monica Morrow, professor of surgery and director of the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Avon was good enough to leave it up to us how we want to spend this money, so it allows us to develop some new infrastructure in our program and to take advantage of some new technologies as well as support and strengthen some of our areas of particular expertise.”

Morrow and V. Craig Jordan, professor of molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry, were selected to propose and administer the programs funded by the donation.

Avon designated $500,000 of the fund to create a second-opinion program at the center for medically uninsured women who have abnormal mammograms.

Morrow said that as many as 50 percent of women who are told they need breast biopsies actually do not.

Through the new program, patients from other Chicago-area hospitals will receive follow-up exams at the cancer center. If biopsies are still required, the women will have access to non-invasive techniques and, if necessary, cancer treatment at the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Program.

The gift will also fund the center’s gene chip technology, which analyzes thousands of genes within cancer cells and could reveal why breast cancer behaves differently in women of different races.

“(If) you have two different 50-year-old women who have a breast cancer that is the same size, it looks the same under the microscope and we treat them the same way,” Morrow said. “One woman will have no more problems with breast cancer and the other woman will die in two years.

“So the question is, what makes those cancers behave in such different ways? We believe that genetic differences in the cancers may be an explanation.”

The donation will enable the center to compile a database of breast density statistics, which could eventually show how different breast densities relate to breast cancer and why the cancer affects women of different races in disparate ways.

Morrow said some researchers have suggested that breast density on mammograms is an important risk factor. NU’s center is one of only eight programs in the country that has equipment to measure breast density.

The center will also start a tissue bank to store and examine pieces of tissue containing breast cancer cells.

Doctors from the Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Evanston Northwestern Hospital will collect cancer tissue from patients. The tissue will be analyzed, and information about the breast cancer cells will be linked to computer databases containing detailed information about each patient.

“In addition to saving whole pieces of tissue, we will also be saving particular components like RNA and DNA so that we can do specialized studies on these tissues,” Morrow said.

The tissue bank will be the first of its kind to link information about breast cancer cells to other characteristics of the patients.

The gift also established the yearly position of Avon Breast Cancer Research Scholar. The first recipient will be selected in a few months.

Four other universities — University of California-Irvine, Emory University, University of Alabama-Birmingham and Columbia University — also received Avon donations for breast cancer research.