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Environmental Factor, November 2015

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New phase of breast cancer research focuses on prevention

By Virginia Guidry

Headshot of Caroline Dilworth

“These priorities reflect our continued commitment to breast cancer prevention,” noted Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., BCERP program lead at NIEHS. “Our goal is to build on the high quality science we’ve been funding for more than a decade, while also being responsive to the expert recommendations of the IBCERCC report.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Headshot of Gwen Collman

“The beauty of this research is that scientific discoveries and community observations inform each other, in order to dive deeper into the complex causes of breast cancer,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A new phase of the Breast Cancer & the Environment Research Program (BCERP) will focus on prevention of the disease, according to an Oct. 8 announcement by NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute. Grant-funded researchers will now work across scientific disciplines, involve new racially and ethnically diverse communities, and expand the study of risk factors that precede breast cancer, such as breast density.

These new directions reflect recommendations made by the Interagency Breast Cancer & Environmental Research Coordinating Committee (IBCERCC) in 2013. The committee was congressionally mandated to review the state of the science around breast cancer and environmental influences by the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act of 2008.

Broader focus, new partnerships

Recommendations included making prevention a priority, involving transdisciplinary research teams, engaging public stakeholders, collaborating across federal agencies, and communicating the science to the public. This broadened research focus will add to the growing knowledge of environmental and genetic factors that may influence breast cancer risk across the lifespan.

There are six new BCERP projects, plus a coordinating center to promote cross-project collaboration. All projects involve strong partnerships between researchers and organizations focused on breast cancer prevention or environmental health. Some projects are being conducted at more than one institution.

  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston
    Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia
    Silent Spring Institute, Newton, Massachusetts
    University of Chile, Santiago
  • City of Hope-Beckman Research Institute, Duarte, California
  • Columbia University Health Sciences, New York City
  • Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Washington, D.C.
    Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland
  • Michigan State University, Lansing
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Massachusetts
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison (Coordinating Center)

The focus on minority and socio-economically disadvantaged women is an important new step in addressing disparities in breast cancer outcomes. Although African-American women are diagnosed with breast cancer less often than white women, they experience higher prevalence of aggressive cancers and more deaths from the disease.

Another new direction for BCERP is research on the role of breast density as a possible intermediate risk factor for breast cancer. Dense breast tissue is one of the most common risk factors for breast cancer. Identifying links between environmental exposures and high breast density may provide new insights into prevention.

(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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