By Heather Reifsnyder
Like many passionate researchers, Padma Uppala, PhD, works long hours in order to solve mysteries of science and the human body.
On top of her other work as an associate professor in the School of Public Health’s department of environmental and occupational health, Dr. Uppala works in the evenings and early mornings to fit in her various research projects on breast cancer. She is grateful to her family for their support of her research.
“It’s hard work,” she says, “but when you get some appreciation, it’s easier to go on with your mission.”
Dr. Uppala recently received some deserved recognition from Susan G. Komen for the Cure Inland Empire Affiliate, which awarded her with the 2006 Komen Mission Award. She received the award during a ceremony February 3 in Temecula.
During the event, Dr. Uppala was able to share some of her faith with the audience.
“Every day when I wake up in the morning, I ask God to give me wisdom and to lead me in the right direction,” she told them. “So here I am.”
Breast cancer is the cancer with which women are most frequently diagnosed. Dr. Uppala points out that nearly 41,000 women in the United States are expected to die from the disease in 2007. Such women are her motivation for research.
“I find meaning in life when I’m able to help people, especially women with cancer,” she explains.
Dr. Uppala’s research will probably not help women who are currently fighting the disease. She shares this fact with newly diagnosed women when she collects their blood for research study.
“You may not be benefited directly,” she tells them. “But you will be able to help future generations.”
Dr. Uppala’s research protocol requires her to sample women’s blood as soon as they are told of their breast cancer diagnosis. Many of them are crying. She forms a bond with these women through offering to pray with them. Dr. Uppala also stays in touch with some of them, to learn how they are doing.
Their blood samples hold the proteins that Dr. Uppala needs in order to identify markers for early detection of breast cancer in women.
The study is focused on African American women, who have higher rates of death from breast cancer. Why? A unique, more aggressive type of breast tumor occurs in younger African American women.
This more deadly tumor type—called basal subtype, or triple negative—grows quickly and does not respond well to treatment. (“Triple negative” tumors have also been identified in Hispanic women.)
“Hence, black women under the age of 50 have a 77 percent higher mortality rate from breast cancer than older black women or white women,” Dr. Uppala says.
Through proteomics—the study of cellular proteins—she hopes to identify proteins involved in basal subtype tumors, as well as other proteins that could serve as markers for early detection and prevention of these aggressive tumors.
This study began in 2004 through a $250,000 grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
The study is now nearing completion. Dr. Uppala will present preliminary findings at the 2007 meetings of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Dr. Uppala is principal investigator for the study. Colleagues in the study include Carlos Gaberoglio, MD, director of the clinical department of general oncologic surgery, City of Hope, in Duarte, California; Sharon Lum, MD, surgical oncologist, Breast Health Center at Loma Linda University Cancer Institute; Kumar Kolli, PhD, and Michael Liebman, PhD, from Windber Research Institute, in Pennsylvania; Helen Kim, PhD, and Steven Barnes, PhD, from University of Alabama at Birmingham; Larry Beeson, DrPH, associate professor, department of epidemiology and biostatistics, LLU School of Public Health; and John Morgan, DrPH, professor, department of epidemiology and biostatistics, School of Public Health.
In addition to this study, Dr. Uppala is also conducting two other breast cancer research projects. One focuses on the relationship of soy to breast cancer rates, and the other
on the relationship of tomatoes to breast cancer rates.
A graduate of LLU with a PhD in biology emphasizing in carcinogenesis, Dr. Uppala first became involved in breast cancer research when she was an associate professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, and at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Residents of nearby Triana, Alabama, were exposed to the highest levels of the pesticide DDT in the United States. DDT acts as an environmental estrogen, and estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer.
Through a $250,000 grant from the United States Department of Defense, Dr. Uppala determined to find the link between DDT exposure and breast cancer in black women in Triana. She was able to establish the link in pubertal rats and published her results in a peer-reviewed journal, Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis.