The human genome is 99.9 percent the same for everyone in the world. The red hair that’s easy to spot in a crowd or the dimples that a mother and child share are what make people so different; yet, they only make up 0.1 percent of who we are. This 0.1 percent of information, called variants or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), also gives clues to the causes of certain diseases. Kenisha Ford, a doctoral candidate in physics, dives straight into the 0.1 percent and joins researchers in the developing field of genodynamics, the research of variants associated with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).
“Biophysical metrics” is what Ford calls her field of research. But what she is trying to achieve with her research is just as interesting as how she gets it done. She examines people of African origins who live in Nigeria, Gambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Then, she calculates the likelihood a particular SNP will appear in a specific population. After that, she uses the SNP potential occurrence data and compares it to data on environmental factors (think humidity level, dew point, ultraviolet rays, temperature and diet).
Ford is on a mission to find correlations between SNPs and environmental factors that could give reason to investigate the relationship further. If scientists understood the biological function of the SNP, they could use it as an effective treatment for TNBC.
Her most surprising insight “One thing that I keep seeing in relation to these variants and these SNPs is the recurrence of UV and temperature as environmental parameters that show possible correlations,” she says. “In lower temps, the SNPs may be a part of a gene that functions in a protective capacity in their native environment. These SNPs appear to be correlated to a higher potential for TNBC.”
After researching these particular groups, Ford takes her insight a step further. African-Americans are an admixed population, so to determine some of the population-specific genomic information, other closely related populations are examined in order to provide insight. When the researched groups are in their ancestral environments with higher temperatures and UV, the variants found to be relevant in TNBC can, in some cases, have a gene that functions in a way that may protect the body from the harsher elements. On the contrary, when these populations are put in environments with lower temperatures, these same variants don’t necessarily work in their favor. Simply put, things that were set up naturally to protect people in certain environments then become harmful to them when they’re not in their ancestral environment.
Black women have the highest mortality rates when it comes to TNBC and the highest rate of occurrence of this particular subtype across all population groups. Ford’s research is another way to understand how to lower these stats. “The next steps will be trying to see what [other environmental factors] can be used to develop more effective treatments.”