NIH-Funded Centers to Seek Early Environmental Exposures That May Lead to Breast Cancer
National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., today announced the funding of four new Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers to study the prenatal-to-adult environmental exposures that may predispose a woman to breast cancer.
The centers are funded jointly by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, both agencies of the National Institutes of Health, at a total of $5 million a year over seven years, or $35 million.
One in eight women in the U.S. can expect to have breast cancer in her lifetime. The causes of most of these cases are not known.
“Although diagnosis and treatment are improving, breast cancer is the leading cancer in women,” NIH Director Zerhouni said. “To improve this picture, we need to better understand the elusive environmental piece of the breast cancer puzzle. If we can understand the early events that can set the stage for breast cancer, we can do more to prevent this disease.”
The new centers are the University of Cincinnati; Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA; University of California, San Francisco; and Michigan State University, East Lansing.
They will work collaboratively on several fronts. Using animals, they will study the development of mammary tissue and the effects of specific environmental agents. In the second collaborative project, they will enroll different ethnic groups of young girls and study their life exposures to a wide variety of environmental, nutritional and social factors that impact puberty. Early puberty has been shown to increase breast cancer risk later in life.
The four centers will interact as a single program, though with some specialization at each center. The University of Cincinnati, for example, will explore the factors influencing the decline in age of onset of menstruation in the U.S. and identify improved early markers for cancer susceptibility. They will examine a population of white and African-American students to test the role of diet in the development of adipose tissue and in alteration of hormonal control of sexual maturation. The center will also carry out complementary studies in rodents.
The Fox Chase Cancer Center investigators also plan to study a series of rodent models of mammary gland development. In addition, the researchers will work to understand how environmental exposures may affect the development of puberty in young African-American and Latina girls in East Harlem, N.Y. Such changes in pubertal development may contribute to premenopausal breast cancer, which is more common in African-American women.
The center at University of California, San Francisco, will study the impact of environmental agents on the interactions between epithelial and stromal (connective tissue) cells in normal and cancer-prone mice. An epidemiology study will follow through puberty a multiethnic group of seven- and eight- year-old girls.
Michigan State University researchers will examine environmental exposures that affect the expression and function of estrogen and progesterone receptors in mouse models.
All the centers will work with advocacy groups to add their insight and experience to the research effort. These breast cancer and other advocates also will play a part in outreach activities to translate the results of the research into improved understanding, diagnosis and prevention of breast cancer. These partnerships are unique in breast cancer research.
“Understanding the development of normal mammary tissue is important in understanding what environmental factors might cause susceptibility later in life,” NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden said. “These four centers will work in close cooperation, bringing all of their expertise to bear upon these questions. This will be a united effort among the centers, not four centers working in isolation.”
NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach said, “Discovery, development, and delivery are the keys to eliminating suffering and death due to cancer. Our hope is that these new centers will help us discover possible environmental causes of breast cancer so that, based on these discoveries, we can develop and deliver effective treatments to fight this disease. The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences will play an active part in managing and supporting these new centers.” He noted that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, making this an especially appropriate time to announce the funding of the new centers.
The directors at each of the centers and their phone numbers are:
- University of Cincinnati, Sue C. Heffelfinger, M.D., Ph.D., (513) 558-1795
- Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA, Jose Russo, M.D. Dr. Russo is not available but inquiries can be made to Karen Carter Mallet (215) 728-2700
- University of California, San Francisco, Robert A. Hiatt, M.D., Ph.D., (415) 597-9399
- Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Sandra Z. Haslam, Ph.D., (517) 355-6475, ext. 1154