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June 2011

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Breast cancer advisory panel making good progress

By Ernie Hood
June 2011

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was obviously delighted with the substantial progress made by the IBCERCC at its May 12-13 meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) full committee session

The 19-member panel met both in full committee sessions, as seen above, and in working breakout sessions of its three subcommittees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

committee chair Michele Forman, Ph.D.,

Forman, who also chairs the State-of-the-Science Subcommittee, updated the panel on the subcommittee's recent activities. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

It was only the second face-to-face meeting of the 19-voting-member Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) since it was formed in 2010 (see story(, but the group's conference May 12-13 at NIEHS in Research Triangle Park, N.C., marked a significant step forward in its appointed tasks.

The committee, which was created by congressional mandate in 2008 and is led by NIEHS in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), is charged with delivering a comprehensive report on federal research in breast cancer and the environment to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The panel and its three subcommittees have met frequently by teleconference in recent months, but Gwen Collman, Ph.D., NIEHS director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training and co-executive Secretary of the IBCERCC noted, “As people get to know each other better through their interactions on the phone, there's nothing that replaces face-to-face conferencing and discussing the issues. It's really great to see all of the progress we were able to make, and it was very gratifying to see that everybody had their sleeves rolled up and were ready to go,” she said. “I think we accomplished a lot.”

Subcommittee updates

The three subcommittees-State-of-the-Science, Research Process, and Research Translation, Dissemination and Policy Implications-are each responsible for drafting a section of the report. “The legislation asks for us to identify a comprehensive strategy for research across the federal agencies in breast cancer and the environment,” said committee chair Michele Forman, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “The three subcommittees are derived from efforts to complete the tasks delineated in the legislation.”

Forman stressed that the diversity of the panel will be a vital element of its success as the project moves forward. “We have a very strong interest in garnering the forces of the advocates, the stakeholders, and others to be engaged in this process on breast cancer and the environment, from the research development stage, to the request for proposal stage to the peer review stage and all the way through to the conduct of the research, so that we keep our eyes on the target,” she said. “The target is the individual and her risk (or his risk, for that matter) for breast cancer, and how we can identify environmental exposures that have some influence. The membership itself has a tremendously energizing effect. Without the advocates, the non-profits, the academics, and the government all joining forces, none of this would happen.”

Although the report does not have a set due date, Forman said she is pushing toward completion “as soon as possible, because breast cancer and the environment has been an area that has not had the attention that it deserves.” With that incentive, the subcommittees will now be working on writing and then circulating first drafts of their sections in advance of the next full committee meeting, which is scheduled for September.

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Deborah Winn, Ph.D.

Deborah Winn, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, serves as co-executive secretary of the IBCERCC. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Collman serves as co-executive secretary of the IBCERCC, representing the NIEHS portion of the collaboration with NCI. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michael Gould, Ph.D.

Michael Gould, Ph.D., a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, chairs the IBCERCC's Research Process subcommittee. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., is president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund, a non-profit group devoted to exposing and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer. She chairs the IBCERCC's Research Translation, Dissemination and Policy Implications subcommittee, and provided healthy snacks to all of the meeting's attendees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Needed - common language for talking about breast cancer research

The subcommittees worked to flesh out the initial outlines of the chapters to be included in their sections of the report, while the entire group arrived at consensus on global themes and issues to be discussed in the report, including agreement on definitions of important but tricky terms such as “environment,” “innovation,” and “research translation.” With a diverse panel made up of federal agency scientists, academic researchers, members of the breast cancer advocacy community, and representatives of non-profit groups such as the American Cancer Society, the adoption of common nomenclature is critical.

“It became apparent that people use the same words to mean very different things, and sometimes we were talking at multiple levels and there wasn't a shared understanding. This often happens when you get a group of people working together who come from different disciplines,” said Collman. “It certainly has been true in our breast cancer and the environment field, when you have advocates and members of the general public, survivors, at the table. They are learning about the research process, and the researchers are learning about the issues they feel are very important. So it's always best to define everything up front.”

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