Mendel Medal awarded Dr. Olufumilayo Olopade, for research of cancer in African populations

Chris Deucher

On Nov. 17 Olufumilayo Olopade, MD, FACP, OON was awarded the University’s annual Mendel Medal.  Students, faculty and guests filled the Villanova Room to attend the ceremony and listen to Olopade’s lecture, which was titled “Genomic Landscape of Breast Cancer in Diverse Populations.”  The underlying theme of the lecture revolved around her pursuit to seek “genetic justice for women and their families around the world by challenging existing paradigms in how breast cancer is detected, diagnosed and treated.”

Born in Nigeria, Olopade attended the University of Ibadan College of Medicine in Nigeria.  She serves as the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics and Director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at The University of Chicago.

“The Mendel Medal selection committee was very impressed with Dr. Olopade’s work in breast cancer genetics, especially on the impact of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations in young women across the African diaspora,” Rev. Kail Ellis, PhD, OSA, Special Assistant to the President and Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said in a press release. “Her research in the incidence of breast cancer among minority populations as well as disparities in health outcomes, are particularly in accord with the criteria for the award of the Mendel Medal.”

In 2005, Dr. Olopade authored a study that found significant differences—genetic mutations— between breast cancers in Caucasian women and in women of African descent.  However, most medical research has been conducted in North America, Europe and Australia.  “There is not enough data coming from the southern hemisphere,” Olopade said.  Thus, Olopade explains, some countries with the lowest incidence rates of cancer have the highest cancer mortality rates.  

“If minority populations are not included in research, you are not going to know anything about them and if they don’t have access to where the research is being conducted, then the onus is on us to go to find them,” Olopade said.  “That’s why we need to be in those communities and why we need to go to Africa, Asia—we need to go all over the world—and [collaborate] with partners in terms of global research.”

She also explained the importance of asking African nations, “what do you need,” rather than sending aid that does not necessarily address the concerns of African leaders and citizens.  Olopade stressed the importance of community-based engagement and the discrepancy of medical access. “Anytime you have technological advances, there is going to be a gap, and that gap will widen when there is inequity in a society,” Olopade said.  “Poor people are constantly not in the mainstream of our research and not in the mainstream of the benefits of the advances that we make.”

The lecture highlighted the advances in next-generation genetic sequencing, which is making genetic testing more affordable and accessible.  Since the genetic aspect of breast cancer and cervical cancer is so significant, these tests offer a patient a likelihood of developing cancer.

Despite the push for more testing, Olopade referred to the “the Angelina Jolie Effect.”  The “Angelina Jolie Effect” is the phenomenon that genetic testing for cancer-prone genes increased after the actress’ public story about breast cancer but this did not lead to an increase of breast cancer diagnoses.  Thus, it is thought that the actress’ announcement led to an increase in testing of individuals with a low risk of cancer.  Therefore, the lecturer pointed out that it is imperative to focus genetic testing on those with a high risk of cancer—even if those individuals are currently underserved by the system.

When asked about the significance of the Mendel Medal, Olopade expressed just how much it means to her. “I study a genetic disease and in my daily work I talk about Mendelian pattern of inheritance to explain hereditary ovarian and breast cancer, and to win this medal means a lot,” Olopade said. “My mentor [Janet Rowley] had received the award several years ago, so I really feel blessed to have received it.”

Though Olopade’s lecture focused on the medical field, she had some words of encouragement for current students in all fields that she expressed during an interview.

“We need students in different types of health professions,“ Olopade said.  “It is not only doctors that we need. We need genetic counselors, we need nurses, we need individuals who will be in business and develop drugs for us to get to our patients. [If the medical field is not for you,] find something else to do, but make sure that what you do matters in terms of changing and improving people’s lives.”

“I love my job. I get the best of all worlds because I get to be a doctor and be with patients—especially cancer patients during difficult moments of their lives—and then I get to go back and ask what else can we do to find cures for cancer. And that really has sustained my interest and the passion I have for the work I do.”