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Breast cancer and the environment program expanding

By Matt Goad
December 2010

Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program; NIEHS; NCI; Extended Environmental Exposures logo

The annual meeting of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research program (BCERP ( Exit NIEHS) Nov. 16-18 in New York marked the successes and expansion of the transdisciplinary program.

Les Reinlib, Ph.D., the program administrator at the NIEHS Susceptibility and Population Health Branch (SPHB), said the BCERP is moving into a second phase that will expand the research goals to look at risk factors for breast cancer over a lifetime. Research suggests that there are windows of susceptibility - in utero, puberty, pregnancy and post-menopausal stages of life - when women are particularly vulnerable to environmental causes of breast cancer. Phase one of the BCERP has focused only on puberty.

"We're now in the trajectory to expand the program," Reinlib said, "so that we can understand over the lifetime of a woman what are the windows of susceptibility when one needs to be especially careful concerning exposures that might need to be avoided for breast cancer risk."

Also representing NIEHS at the meeting were NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who gave opening remarks; Gwen Coleman, Ph.D., director for the Division of Extramural Research and Training; Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., SPHB acting chief; Dale Sandler, Ph.D., Epidemiology Branch chief and principal investigator on the NIEHS Sister Study; and several others.

The BCERP is a network of centers created in 2003 by NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute. Phase two of the program features increased numbers of investigators and community partners around the nation and a re-organized advisory committee that represents scientific expertise and the breast cancer survivor andadvocacy community.

An ambitious study by six University of California campuses, for example, will follow 150,000 women for 50 years. Other studies will focus on the pregnancy window.

Studies of the environmental influences on early onset of puberty in young girls - an established risk factor for future breast cancer - will continue, as well.

There are some factors affected by the environment, such as obesity, for example, that common sense says would affect health, Reinlib said, but in a time when there are so many artificial chemicals in the environment, it is harder to tell what breast cancer risks women face.

Reinlib pointed to recent questions about bottled water.

"Who would have imagined that a bottle of spring water could actually affect your health?" Reinlib continued. "And yet now we are finding out that the bottles may contain chemicals such as phthalates that could leach out, to a small, but measurable extent, and are found in our bodies."

Reports are already pointing to weak relationships between exposure to these endocrine disruptors and the early onset of puberty. This factor may be one of the pieces in the complex puzzle that alters risk of breast cancer. Further studies are under way within the BCERP to understand the impact of indoor pesticides, heavy metals, diet, pregnancy, and hormone-like substances found in cosmetics and sunscreen.

Presentations from the public portion of the BCERP annual meeting will soon be available on the BCERP ( Exit NIEHS website.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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