Q&A with Sophia George, Ph.D.
Sylvester geneticist focuses on cancer and health inequities “from society to the cell.”
Sophia George, Ph.D., is motivated by her communities.
Originally from Dominica in the Caribbean and now an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Dr. George wants to understand why breast cancer and gynecologic cancers can be so much more deadly in people of African ancestry.
She’s also motivated by making sure people who look like her receive the attention and treatment they deserve, attention that has been historically lacking in cancer studies and trials.
We recently caught up with George, also director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Sylvester, to learn more about her work and why it’s so essential. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Sylvester?
I’m a molecular geneticist and I study breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. In particular, I study women and families who carry genetic mutations that increase their risk for these cancers. I focus especially on the African diaspora: folks here in South Florida, elsewhere in the United States, in the Caribbean, and in Africa, including in Kenya, Benin, Burkina Faso, Namibia and Nigeria.
I am fortunate to be part of an amazing team at Sylvester and with my collaborators nationally and internationally, all working together on these big problems. Cancer is multi-dimensional and we need experts of all kinds to come together.
What motivates you in your work?
I am studying people who look like me and maybe sound like me. I want to understand the diseases that are impacting my community—my community here in South Florida, but I’m also from the Caribbean and ancestrally from Africa.
What motivates me is trying to make an impact, trying to improve the quality of people’s lives, and also that whatever we find will be applicable to other populations.
In the populations you work with, what barriers or gaps exist to their receiving optimal care?
There are so many gaps. There is the gap of early detection, of awareness of the risk factors that increase your risk of developing cancer, of symptom awareness. For example, in women who are postmenopausal and no longer having periods, bleeding is one of the early signs of gynecologic cancer. And that is not widely known in these populations.
There’s also a gap of diagnoses. The tools that we use to diagnose are not easily available globally, particularly in low-resource settings. And finally, for survivors, how can we make sure they have healthy lives after treatment?
You co-lead the African Cancer Genome Registry that is sequencing whole genomes from cancer patients of African descent. Can you tell us more about this registry and why it’s needed?
This is a program I lead together with my colleague Dr. Camille Ragin of Fox Chase Cancer Center and the African Caribbean Cancer Consortium. We’re looking at breast cancer and prostate cancer, two cancers that have high prevalence across the entire world.
When we look at the data on who has worse outcomes from these cancers, we see the Caribbean and we see Africa. Individuals of African descent have been understudied and underserved, so we decided to leverage our consortium and the support of our institutions to shed a light on the etiology of these diseases and, eventually, we’ll work with clinicians to improve treatment and survivorship in these populations.
How is cancer risk different in the populations you study?
We know that one part is genetic. For example, we have seen that certain populations in the Caribbean, Bahamian women, have a unique spectrum of mutations in the BRCA1 and 2 genes that increase risk for breast and ovarian cancer. We are looking at these mutations in the context of prostate cancer as well.
Once we identify populations that have this high burden of mutations, we can provide better risk-reducing strategies, better screenin, and also better treatments.
But the environment is so important too. We consider the environment to be things like: Where were you born? How long have you lived there? What’s your diet and exercise like, your social environment? We know all these things play a role not just in risk of disease, but how we manage and how we experience disease and survivorship. We’re really looking from the society to the cell.