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African-American women in cancer research

Celebrating trailblazers

In celebration of Black History Month and International Women's Day, we are spotlighting the incredible contributions of three African-American women who have carved paths for future scientists while significantly advancing our knowledge in the relentless global battle against cancer.

Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924-2017)

As a distinguished cancer researcher, Jewel is known for her extensive work on melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer. Alongside her frequent collaborator, Jane Cooke Wright, Jewel evidenced the anticancer effects of the drug methotrexate in addressing skin and lung cancer, as well as childhood leukaemia.

She is also recognised for her distinctive research examining the varying responses to chemotherapy drugs among cells from different racial and ethnic groups. This research led to the pivotal finding that melanin, a skin pigment, could serve as a protective shield against the damaging effects of sunlight associated with skin cancer.

Her 1979 article titled Filters for Women in Science recognised the low percentage of women working in scientific research and engineering, including the barriers that female scientists face in their professional journey. As a result, throughout her career, she often wrote about the experiences of black women in higher education. She also passionately championed for the advancement of black people and women working in the fields of science and medicine.

In an interview, she stated that she would like to be remembered as “a black woman

scientist who cared very much about what happens to young folks, particularly

women, going into science”.

Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013)

As the daughter of Harvard Medical School graduate, Louis Tompkins Wright, one of the first African American surgeons in the United States, Jane followed in her father’s footsteps and became a physician. Working together, they explored and compared the activity of possible anticancer compounds in both tissue cultures and in patients. This was revolutionary at the time, considering that chemotherapy guidelines were barely established.

In collaboration with her father and six male doctors , the team established the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) to address the clinical needs of cancer patients. Later on, Jane led ASCO at just 33 years old, following her father’s death.

Throughout her career, she conducted research in chemotherapy, publishing over 100 articles on the topic, aiming to fine-tune and tailor chemotherapeutic treatments for patients to ensure better survival outcomes. Like Jewel, she also played a key role in investigating and demonstrating how different racial and ethnic backgrounds respond to drugs used in chemotherapy. This has now become a field of its own, pharmacoethnicity, which studies the anticancer drug responses across people of different ethnicities and is advancing our knowledge on personalised chemotherapy treatment for patients.

During an interview, her daughter, Alison Jones, described Jane as:

A very ambitious person... she never let anything stand in the way of doing what she wanted to do.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Although not a scientist herself, Henrietta has made a significant contribution to cancer research and medicine through her cervical cancer cells. Although, tragically, she did not know it. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 and sadly passed away the same year.

The cervical cancer cells obtained from her biopsy were found to have a unique ability to continuously grow and divide in vitro. Therefore, they could be grown into cell cultures and used in further research. As a result of this trait, researchers have investigated their behaviour, including mutation, division, and carcinogenesis, allowing them to study the effects of drugs and other treatments on these cells.

The “immortal” cell line, termed HeLa, has played a pivotal role in the creation of the polio vaccine in the 1950s and medicines for conditions such as leukaemia, influenza, and Parkinson's disease. The HeLa cells also identified the Human papillomavirus (HPV), which later led to the finding that the virus can cause different types of cervical cancer, leading to the significant development of the HPV vaccine used today.

It is estimated that over 110,000 research publications have used HeLa cells, emphasising their demand in research. Were it not for Henrietta Lacks, the HeLa cell line would not have been discovered, which has revolutionised our understanding of cancer and medical advancements.

In conclusion, the remarkable journey of these pioneering African American women in cancer research serves not only as an inspiration but also a testament to their perseverance, courage, and dedication. They have championed diversity within science, pushed boundaries, and shaped the field of cancer research, allowing for the progress of scientific research in curing cancer and beyond.

Written by Meera Solanki

Related articles: Women leading the charge in biomedical engineering / The foremothers of gynaecology


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