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‘Pioneering’ breast cancer research yields more dollars in race for treatment, solutions



breast cancer awareness
From left, Char Williams, Neal Holcomb, Dr. Robert L. Ellliott, Dr. Mary C. Elliott and Zack Odoms stand in front of Kent Wyatt Hall at Delta State University in 2016. (UMMC)

By: Danny Barrett Jr.,

Research in the fight against breast cancer is a daily grapple with the task of matching the right patient to the right drug at the right time.

Such is the aim of breast cancer research dollars the past year from the Rolling Fork-based Mississippi Breast Foundation. The organization, run by CPA Neal Holcomb, has given $200,000 over the past year to the University of Mississippi Medical Center to fund breast cancer research. In the next four years, the group’s quarterly contributions are expected to total $1 million.

Portrait of Neal Holcomb

“The Mississippi Breast Foundation has invested in breast cancer research since 1996,” said Holcomb, who started the foundation after losing both parents to cancer. “We’re pleased that UMMC is giving focus to the health care needs in the Mississippi Delta.”

Funds are being administered by the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi and are in memory of Dr. Robert L. Elliott a 2013 UMMC Medical Alumni Chapter Hall of Fame inductee, and his wife, Dr. Mary C. Elliott, both of whom dedicated their lives to cancer research. Each died in 2021.

“Dr. Elliott’s pioneering breast cancer research saved thousands of lives who were given little to no hope of long-term survival,” Holcomb said. “Numerous friends and family members of mine living in the Mississippi Delta were treated by Dr. Elliott and his wife, Dr. Mary Elliott at their mastology center in Baton Rouge. With their passing in 2021, our board of directors searched for who we believed was conducting comparable breast cancer research, particularly with a focus on the Delta.”

Chronically underserved when it comes to access to health care options, the Delta region’s full expanse along eight states including Mississippi has been cited in comprehensive studies, most recently in 2019, as being a hotspot for breast cancer mortality, especially for Black women. The state’s age-adjusted rate of 23.5 female breast cancer deaths per 100,000 people was second-highest in the nation as of 2020.

Hernando-based CFNM functions to support efforts to improve the health and education of those living in their 11-county oversight area, which includes the Mississippi Delta.

“The health care needs in the Mississippi Delta are overwhelming,” said Keith Fulcher, president of the Hernando-based organization.  “The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi’s commitment is to connect people who care with causes that matter. We have great hope that our connecting the University of Mississippi Medical Center with funding from the Mississippi Breast Foundation will one day lead to breakthroughs in breast cancer research.”

Those dollars are already being put to work in UMMC research labs.

Thomas Hopkins, seated left, of Bolton, is examined by registered nurse Serena Flynt as part of a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Shou-Ching Tang, right. Jay Ferchaud/ UMMC Communications

Thomas Hopkins, seated left, of Bolton, is examined by registered nurse Serena Flynt as part of a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Shou-Ching Tang, right.

Tests of a drug that focuses on a woman’s immune system to fight cancer began this year under the direction of Dr. Shou-Ching Tang, CCRI associate director for clinical and translational research, with the goal of offering women with breast cancer a new and better treatment option. Such immunotherapies strengthen a person’s immune systems so it can find and target cancer cells and show promise in breast cancer patients being studied, with high potential to improve the outcome and with limited side effects.

Tang will head up a clinical trial expected to get underway in 2023 to further determine which cases respond best to this new category of drugs.

Holcomb is a 1992 graduate of Delta State University and was awarded the institution’s Hugh Ellis Walker Alumni Service Award in 2013 for his support of his alma mater and for scientific research.

Donations to UMMC’s academic schools may be made online or by check, payable to The UMMC Fund.

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