Olufunmilayo Olopade Biography

Physician, oncologist and geneticist

Born c. 1957 in Nigeria; married Christopher Sola Olopade (a physician); children: two daughters, one son. Religion: Episcopalian. Education: University of Ibadan, Nigeria, MD, 1980.

Addresses: Home —Chicago, IL. Office —University of Chicago Hospitals, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., MC 2115, Chicago, IL 60637.


Medical officer, Nigerian Navy Hospital, c. 1980; internal medicine intern, Cook County Hospital, Chicago, IL, 1983-84; internal medicine resident, Cook County Hospital, 1984-86; chief resident, Cook County Hospital, 1986-87; post-doctoral fellow in hematology/oncology, University of Chicago, 1987-91; assistant professor of hematology/oncology, Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, 1991-2002; director, Cancer Risk Clinic, University of Chicago Hospitals, c. 1992—; associate professor of medicine, University of Chicago, 2002; professor of medicine and human genetics, University of Chicago, early 2000s—.

Member: American Association for Cancer Research; American Association for the Advancement of Science; American College of Physicians; American Society for Preventative Oncology; American Society of Breast Disease; American Society of Clinical Oncology; American Society of Hematology; Association of American Professors; Nigerian Medical Association; African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer; American Society for Clinical Investigation; Association of American Physicians; board, Young Survival Coalition; board, Inflammatory

Breast Cancer Research Foundation; board, Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organization.

Awards: Nigerian Federal Government Merit Award, 1975; Nigerian Medical Association Award for Excellence in Pediatrics, 1978; Nigerian Medical Association Award for Excellence in Medicine, 1980; University of Ibadan College of Medicine Faculty Prize, 1980; University of Ibadan College of Medicine departmental prizes in pediatrics, medicine, and surgery, 1980; University of Ibadan Sir Samuel Manuwa Gold Medal for Excellence in the Clinical Sciences, 1980; Association for Brain Tumor Research/Ellen Ruth Lebow Fellowship, 1990; American Society for Clinical Oncology Young Investigator Award, 1991; James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award, 1992; Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award, 2000; Phenomenal Woman Award for work within the African-American community, 2003; Access Community Network's Heroes in Healthcare Award, 2005; MacArthur Fellow, 2005.


During the 1990s, cancer specialist Olufunmilayo Olopade became perplexed when she realized that breast cancer tended to hit women of African descent earlier—and harder—than their United States and European counterparts. Since then, Olopade has dedicated her career to finding out why in hopes of discovering a cure. Along the way, Olopade has made many groundbreaking discoveries about the disease and in 2005 was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" to continue her research. Speaking to Kelli Whitlock Burton of Medicine on the Midway, Olopade discussed her drive to find out more about the disease. "Part of our work as scientists is not only to study biology and science, but also to engage society. If we can't translate our research to help people, then why are we doing the work?"

The fifth of six children, Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade was born around 1957 in Nigeria. The future physician-scientist, known to friends as Funmi (pronounced FOON-me), was the daughter of an Anglican minister. Doctors were scarce in the Nigerian villages where Olopade was raised so her parents decided that one of their children should become a doctor; Olopade was the first to express any interest. After earning her medical degree in 1980 from Nigeria's University of Ibadan, Olopade worked as a medical officer at the Nigerian Navy Hospital in Lagos to fulfill her country's requirement that university-educated young adults put in a year's service with the National Youth Service Corps.

Olopade then relocated to the United States to complete an internship and residency at Chicago's Cook County Hospital, where she ended up chief resident in 1986. Olopade left the hospital in 1987 to study hematology and oncology as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, a military coup had overthrown the Nigerian government, so she decided to stay in the United States. In 1991, she joined the University of Chicago faculty as an assistant professor in hematology and oncology.

Olopade's interest in cancer led her to push for the 1992 formation of the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago, which she now oversees. The clinic specializes in treating high-risk cancer patients and also conducts studies on the disease, paying close attention to genetics. While working at the clinic, Olopade realized that the African-American women she treated for breast cancer seemed much younger than other sufferers of the disease.

Olopade did not realize how peculiar the situation was until 1997 when she went back to Nigeria for a niece's wedding. While there she visited a breast cancer clinic and as she walked through the waiting room it hit her—the women were all so young, just in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Just like in her Chicago clinic, breast cancer in Nigeria was a young woman's disease, whereas the typical Caucasian woman with breast cancer gets the disease after menopause when she is in her 50s or 60s.

Olopade wondered if there was a genetic reason for this anomaly. In other words, perhaps there was something about a woman's African ancestry that induced breast cancer at a younger age. In addition, Olopade wondered why African-American women with breast cancer had a higher mortality rate despite a lower incidence of the disease. Fighting the disease also turned personal. Olopade had a cousin in her mid-thirties die of the disease after Nigerian doctors misdiagnosed a breast tumor as a boil.

Intent on finding out more, Olopade, in 2000, launched a small study of Nigerian breast cancer patients. After studying tissue samples from her Chicago patients and the Nigerian patients, Olopade realized that mutations in two genes—BRCA1 and BRCA2—occurred in the patients with early-onset breast cancer. At this point, Olopade wanted to know more about the genetics of breast cancer, so she gained approval for a larger study through the university's Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research, which secured a $9.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. This ongoing study, which began in 2003, has looked at cancer patients in Nigeria and Senegal. Research results have yielded new, innovative approaches to treating breast cancer in this population. Olopade is one of four principal investigators involved in the study.

Early on, the study found that breast-cancer tumors in African women develop from basal-like cells, whereas women of European ancestry develop breast tumors from milk-duct cells. The biggest find, however, was the discovery that nearly 80 percent of African breast tumors are estrogen-receptor (ER) negative compared to 20 percent of Caucasian breast cancer tumors. This meant that hormone therapy, often used to treat breast cancer, would not work in the African population. "Tumors that are estrogen-receptor positive depend on estrogen to grow," Olopade told Medicine on the Midway 's Whitlock Burton, explaining that many doctors treat breast cancer with estrogen-blocking drugs. "The estrogen-receptor-negative tumors are estrogen independent. To kill them you have to use chemotherapy, which has all the side effects and may not always work."

These discoveries have led Olopade to rethink prevention and treatment strategies for women of African descent. She has been vocal in urging women in this risk group to start screenings at a younger age. Despite the advances, Olopade is still wrestling with one big question—how should doctors treat this more aggressive, ER negative form of breast cancer? To help find proper treatment, Olopade has been working with doctors in Nigeria to establish a clinical trial of chemotherapy tablets called Herceptin and Xeloda. Her goal is to improve mortality for African women. In the United States, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 85 percent, but it hovers at just 10 percent in Nigeria. Olopade believes more research is needed. "Breast cancer isn't one single disease," she told Essence 's Kimberly L. Allers. "It affects women of different populations in different ways."

In 2005, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the United States' largest private philanthropic foundations, awarded Olopade a $500,000 grant to continue her research. The MacArthur grants are given to people who show exceptional promise in making a difference in the world. The awards are unique in that a person cannot apply; the foundation simply selects winners. "I was shocked," Olopade told the Chicago Sun-Times ' Jim Ritter. "I didn't know that anyone was paying attention to my work."

Along the way, Olopade married fellow physician Christopher Sola Olopade, whose specialty is treating asthma and sleep disorders. They have two daughters and a son. They live in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood near the University of Chicago.



Chicago Sun-Times, September 20, 2005, p. 22.

Essence, January 2006, p. 90.


"AORTIC Member Wins Prestigious MacArthur Fellowship—Also Known as the 'Genius Grant,'" AORTIC (African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer) News, http://africa.aortic. org/AORTIC_News_issue_4.pdf (February 1, 2006).

"Conference Promotes Breast and Cervical Cancer Awareness in Nigeria," University of Chicago Hospitals, http://www.uchospitals.edu/news/2004/20040514-nigeria.html (February 28, 2006).

"The Face of Breast Cancer," Medicine on the Midway, http://www.uchospitals.edu/pdf/uch_009154.pdf (February 1, 2006).

"Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, FACP," University of Chicago Hospitals, http://www.uchospitals. edu/physicians/olufunmilayo-olopade.html (February 1, 2006).

"University of Chicago Cancer Specialist Receives 2005 MacArthur Foundation 'Genius Grant,'" University of Chicago Hospitals, http://www. uchospitals.edu/news/2005/20050920-geniusgrant.html (February 28, 2006).

Lisa Frick

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