CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – The cancer research that Dr. Heather Dunn conducts is often described as important, but it wasn’t always that way.
“When I started this research, I don’t want to say I had little buy in… I had no buy in,” said Dr. Heather Dunn, Clemson Bioengineering. “People really didn’t take this seriously or they didn’t feel…I was told this wasn’t relevant work or this isn’t necessary.”
Now, accompanied by her army of Clemson University bioengineering student researchers, she’s directing groundbreaking breast cancer research that highlights racial disparities.
“Triple negative breast cancer occurs in African American women almost twice as often as it does in Caucasian patients,” said Dunn.
Lifestyle or environmental factors are often blamed for the difference in breast cancer rates among African American women and Caucasian women. But by using artificial intelligence and feeding computers images of tumors found in both races, Dunn and her students are proving that assumption wrong.
“Our job now is to go in and figure out what these differences are, what the computer sees and that’s what we are learning is the interface of that tumor and the cells surrounding the tumor, that’s where we’re seeing where these changes are,” said Dunn.
These findings have grabbed the attention of researchers across the globe, but maybe the most surprising part of it all, is who’s behind it.
“They present their research and people around the world are talking to them and they think they might be a post-doc or PhD student and when they find out they are undergraduate students they’re blown away,” said Dunn.
Moving forward, Dunn and her students are hopeful for their research, but are always reminding themselves of their purpose.
“For that mom to be there to celebrate her children’s birthdays, graduations, weddings and stick that extra candle in their birthday cake every year, that is what drives me,” said Dunn.
Dabo Swinney’s “All-In” foundation was the first to fund Dunn’s research and the first, she said, to pay attention to her findings that showcased the racial disparities seen in breast cancer.