Two doctors from the MGHhave teamed up with the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) to help reshape public health in sub-Saharan Africa. Their goal is to dramatically decrease the mortality rate from breast cancer with accurate and early diagnoses and treatment.

During her MGH residency, Omonigho “Omo” Aisagbonhi, MD, PhD, MGH pathologist, taught at MUST and last November she returned to Uganda for a year-long stay.  Together with Drucilla Roberts, MD, MGH associate pathologist, they are working to grow the MUST Pathology Department.

In Uganda, breast cancer is the second-most common form of cancer found in women, and more than 60 percent of East African women who are diagnosed with breast cancer die from their disease. In contrast, the mortality rate of U.S. women with breast cancer is about 10 percent.

Because of inadequate funding and systematic inefficiencies in Uganda’s health care system, breast cancer is often detected in later stages, delaying treatment. But differences in how breast cancer is initially diagnosed may contribute even more strongly to the disparity in mortality rates between the U.S. and Uganda. The doctors aim to have the needed diagnostic supplies to help implement the technique known as diagnostic immunohistochemistry (IHC).

In the U.S., breast tumors routinely receive the IHC lab test to detect whether the tumor cells test positive for factors such as the HER2 protein or estrogen and progesterone hormone receptors. Identifying the exact type of cancer allows the breast pathologist to establish the path of care a patient should receive. Clinics in Uganda lack the necessary equipment and chemical substances used to perform IHC laboratory tests. Medical professionals also are not trained to perform the tests.

Aisagbonhi and Roberts are working to change that. They are in the process of training lab staff, and the test soon will be available for use on-site, allowing doctors and nurses to provide the most efficient course of treatment for their patients.

“MUST is so hungry for education and training,” says Roberts. “It’s a small pathology department so to have another pathologist there is huge. Omo will offer insight and a consistency to their training. That will be worth gold.” 

Read more articles from the 08/18/17 Hotline issue.