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Student’s breast cancer risk study: A surprising finding and a first at KU School of Medicine-Wichita

December 05, 2019

Caroline Breit, third-year medical student

By Brian Whepley

KU School of Medicine-Wichita student Caroline Breit's research into breast cancer risk and genetic testing stands out in a couple of ways.

For starters, the third-year medical student is the first in the honors track at the Wichita campus to have research published, as lead author of a study in the October issue of the American Journal of Surgery.

More importantly, the research quantified something researchers suspected: Women who undergo genetic testing to see if they have a gene-linked cancer risk and then receive a negative result - they termed it "uninformative" - still have a heightened risk of developing cancer. The finding didn't surprise researchers, but the rate did, with 51% of women still having elevated risk.

"A lot of people, if they test negative, think they wouldn't be at increased risk. Women should still be educated that even if they don't have a mutation, they could still get breast cancer," Breit said.

"Screening and risk reduction are extremely important in these women," said Patty Tenofsky, M.D., a breast surgeon at Ascension Via Christi and general surgery residency clinical associate professor at KU School of Medicine-Wichita who worked with Breit on the research.

For Breit, the research hits home, as she carries the BRCA2 gene mutation that greatly increases risk.

"It isn't the only reason I'm interested in breast cancer research, but it spurred my interest," said Breit, whose mother, Sharon, is a Wichita OB-GYN.

Other researchers were Maggie Ward, MSN, APRN, AGCNS-BC, OCN, genetics practitioner and manager at Ascension Via Christi Cancer Outreach & Risk Assessment Program; Elizabeth Ablah, Ph.D., MPH, associate professor in the Department of Population Health at KU School of Medicine-Wichita; and Hayrettin Okut, Ph.D., biostatistician in the Office of Research at the school.

To earn the honors designation, students must be in the top quarter of their class and complete publishable research. Ablah's class, Clinical and Population-Based Research, fulfills the research requirement.

Ablah connected Breit with Tenofsky, and she brought in Ward, whose patient charts were reviewed. Together, the team honed and obtained approval for the study, with Ablah helping throughout the process and Okut assisting with data use. Breit did chart reviews the summer after her first year, and then worked the data and wrote and rewrote.

"The vast majority of the work was done by Caroline," said Tenofsky, who was impressed by her work ethic, organization and writing ability.

"Caroline was able to get this project done in a very short period of time and did it effortlessly," Ablah said.

Research allows students to not only dive into a topic, but also to prepare for the future. Competitive residencies require students to have done research, with some wanting them to be lead researcher.

"They will not be at a loss when the time comes, and they'll have advanced their interests and their careers," Ablah said.

Breit presented the research this past summer at a Midwest Surgical Association meeting in Indiana. With an audience of 80, it was a bit intimidating but "a really good opportunity."

From the process, "I take away the fact that doing research as a medical student is a very doable thing," Breit said.

Learn more

Read the full study.

KU School of Medicine-Wichita
Last modified: Dec 05, 2019
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KU School of Medicine–Wichita
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Wichita, KS, 67214

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