Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers Chart New Territory
Researchers are taking a fresh approach to investigating environmental factors that may be associated with breast cancer risk by focusing on exposure during puberty. Four Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERCs) are exploring whether there are vulnerable times during development of the mammary gland when exposure to environmental agents may influence risk for breast cancer later in life.
“Traditionally, epidemiologic studies of breast cancer and the environment have focused on adult females with breast cancer,” said NCI’s Dr. Deborah Winn, acting associate director of the Epidemiology and Genetics Research Program (EGRP) in the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS). “Early puberty is an established risk factor for breast cancer, and puberty may be an important window of susceptibility to the cancer. These centers are unique in their focus and approach.”
BCERCs are enrolling 1,200 girls aged 6 to 8 to examine relationships between breast development, age at first menses, and factors such as hormonal changes, diet, exercise, obesity, family medical history, psychosocial stressors, environmental exposures, and genetic characteristics and biomarkers. In parallel, using rat and mouse models, they are conducting animal studies to characterize the molecular features of the mammary gland over the lifespan and determine how exposure to potential carcinogens during these times influences cancer risk.
Begun in 2003, the research initiative is a 7-year, $35 million endeavor jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and NCI. Through DCCPS, NCI contributes 40 percent of this total. Additional support is provided by private organizations.
The centers are located at the University of California, San Francisco, with Dr. Robert Hiatt as principal investigator; the University of Cincinnati, with Dr. Sue Heffelfinger; Michigan State University, with Dr. Sandra Haslam; and the Fox Chase Cancer Center, with Dr. Jose Russo. Each center has a biology and epidemiology component, except Michigan State, which is not participating in the epidemiological study. The centers also have affiliated networks of research and advocacy organizations.
From the outset, breast cancer advocates have been instrumental in the creation of BCERCs and are integral to the project. Each center has a Community Outreach and Translation Core (COTC) comprised chiefly of advocates to translate and disseminate findings, and develop public health messages and other educational materials. Along with COTC, the epidemiology and biology groups work together not only at each center, but also across the centers in their respective areas.
“The centers are structured so that the laboratory research informs the epidemiologic research and vice versa, and consumer involvement is central. Scientists and advocates collaborate throughout the project,” said Dr. Winn.
Last month, BCERC members met in Bethesda, Md., to discuss their progress and how to incorporate a transdisciplinary approach to improve their effectiveness. This involves jointly working to integrate discipline-specific concepts, methods, measures, and approaches to produce a new, more powerful conceptual framework for investigating breast cancer etiology.
“The vertical and horizontal integration of science is very much a central topic of focus now at NCI and across NIH,” said Dr. Robert Croyle, DCCPS director. “How these centers integrate basic and epidemiologic science and the different types of evidence from each could provide a prototype to use in many different contexts and diseases.”
To learn more about the BCERCs, visit www.bcerc.org.