Meet The Nigerian Woman Tackling The Genetic Basis Of Cancer

By Andrew Wight

Nigerian researcher Professor Olufunmilayo Olopade has worked for decades in the search for the genetic basis of breast cancer, now she is teaming up with an African startup to sequence populations that are under-represented in the medical literature.

Professor Olopade, a V Foundation Scientific Advisory committee member, and dean for global health/director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics & Global Health says her current laboratory research is focused on using whole genome technologies and bioinformatics to gain a deeper understanding of the genomic landscape of breast cancer.

“I study familial forms of cancers, molecular mechanisms of tumor progression, as well as genetic and non-genetic factors contributing to tumor progression in diverse populations,” she says, “The translational focus of my research is to develop innovative approaches to democratize access to quality precision health care, increase health equity and thereby improve cancer outcomes.”

Professor Olopade is now working with an African startup that in 2021 secured $25 million in Series B funding to continue their genomic work in Africa.

According to 54gene, less than 3% of genomic data represented in research is from African populations.

“Our biggest challenge was finding sustainable funding but I now have the biggest opportunity to partner with biotech startup 54gene to perform the work in Africa,” she says.

High-school Physics to Oncology

Professor Olopade, who was born and raised in Nigeria, says her “Eureka” moment came when she was performing parallax experiments in high school physics exams.

Later on she would go on to study a medical degree from the University of Ibadan College of Medicine in Nigeria and then trained in internal medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and in oncology, hematology and cancer genetics at the Joint Section of Hematology and Oncology at The University of Chicago.

“I remember being put on an oncology rotation and having one of the most amazing medical oncologists as my senior resident who was an international graduate from Portugal,” Professor Olopade says, “She was so smart and was going to do oncology at MD Anderson and she inspired me.”

Professor Olopade said that during the rotation she came to think about how “wow, these people are so caring,” and that they had patients who received chemotherapy and the “cancer melted away”.

“So I went from thinking about doing cardiology but then the minute I started seeing that we can actually treat cancer, it became really clear to me that I wanted to find out why some people just didn’t respond,” she says, “That’s what really got me to apply to do my post doc training at the U of Chicago and the rest was history.”

“I am passionate and motivated to find cures for diseases that impact people like me on the basis of my gender and ancestry,” she says. “That is the legacy of academic freedom I wish to leave for my children and the next generation of scholars who come to the University of Chicago.”

Another scientist who is working to help communities to better understand and fight cancer is Sara Gomez-Trillos.

This health researcher has helped to increase awareness and use of genetic counseling and testing for Latina women who are at increased risk for Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (HBOC). This work one day benefit her home country of Colombia.