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$3.5 million grant to fund research on breast cancer risk and environmental exposure to common chemicals

October 14, 2015
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(The following article features information compiled from the Baystate and UMass press releases on the NIEHS grant, as well as from the agency's official press release)

Breast cancer risk and environmental exposure to common chemicals found in cosmetics and household products will be the focus of a five-year grant - expected to total $3.5 million - to a consortium of scientists at Baystate Medical Center, the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI) and the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research.

The research consortium is led by Joseph Jerry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who will serve as principal investigator for the grant jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute.

“Breast cancer is an important problem in the Pioneer Valley,” said Dr. Peter Friedmann, Chief Research Officer of Baystate Health, “and this innovative project is an excellent example of collaborative research that furthers Baystate’s mission to improve the health of people in our community. This award from the NIEHS is well-deserved recognition of the talent, capabilities and hard-work of the investigators at PVLSI and the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research in bridging the gaps among pre-clinical, clinical, environmental and population science.”

The local research is one of six new projects of the NIEHS Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP), whose broadened research focus will add to the growing knowledge of environmental and genetic factors that may influence breast cancer risk across the lifespan. All projects involve strong partnerships between researchers and organizations focused on breast cancer prevention or environmental health.

“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 NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.

Dr. Grace Makari-Judson, co-director of the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research along with Jerry, noted the importance of support from the Rays of Hope for local research.

“A small grant from Rays of Hope supported initial research that was part of the preliminary results that were important in securing the award from NIEHS. And the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research provides critical infrastructure for this new research project,” said the Baystate breast specialist.

According to Jerry, their new project will focus on investigating possible effects of exposure during pregnancy to a group of environmental chemicals in household products including benzophenone-3, found in sunscreens and cosmetics, and risk of breast cancer. The compounds, which display estrogen-like activity, have been measured in large numbers of pregnant women, many of whom are exposed to substantial amounts with unknown consequences. The research focuses on pregnancy as a critical window of breast development. Pregnancy can reduce the lifetime risk of breast cancer by up to 50 percent, offering a protective effect.

“This project is designed to reassure women where appropriate that there is little breast cancer risk for some groups, while on the other hand raising an alarm where we think there is cause for concern,” Jerry said.

Over the next five years, the researchers will investigate genetic and biochemical mechanisms, looking at cultured breast tissues from a total of 60 women to test the activity of tumor suppressor genes and cell proliferation in response to environmental chemical exposure.

According to Jerry, their large study of personalized risk factors should help to ascertain whether there is a population of women who are especially sensitive to estrogen-like chemicals or specific compounds and whether exaggerated responses should be followed up.

“That’s why we’re looking at the individual level, not just at the average of a population, because if we do identify a population of women who are sensitive, looking at the highs and lows in their gene expression profiles, we hope to develop a screening test to identify the subgroup of women for whom preventive strategies should be considered,” he said.

Jerry noted it takes a team, each with their own particular expertise, to conduct the research.

“Without everyone we couldn’t do it,” he said.

In addition to Makari-Judson, the team at Baystate includes pathologist Dr. Giovanna Crisi and surgeon Dr. Rick Arenas, chief of Surgical Oncology. With Jerry at UMass Amherst are environmental health researcher Laura Vandenberg in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and Karen Dunphy in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. At PVLSI, the lead investigator is cell biologist Sallie Schneider, who directs the institute’s biospecimen resource and molecular analysis facility.

The Breast Research Registry at the Rays of Hope Center for Cancer Research now has breast tissue from more than 500 women in the Pioneer Valley along with valuable lifestyle and medical history information. Breast cancer activist and Rays of Hope volunteer Anna Symington is the community engagement coordinator for this new project.

Symington, former chair of Rays of Hope, has developed partnerships with the community groups Girls, Inc. of Holyoke and La Esperanza. She will work closely with members to ascertain their level of breast health awareness, and their understanding and level of concern over possible health effects of exposure to chemicals in their environment, which is the focus of the project. Symington is also tasked with identifying health care products, beauty aids and household products used by these women and how they choose them. She will help the researchers to assess whether sharing study results and other information with the women and girls will change their choices over the five-year study period.

La Esperanza provides breast health education, screening and support services to Latino women in Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee. Among other things, the researchers plan to bring bilingual information on breast health and environmental chemicals to some of its health care workshops and an annual expo.

“Facilitating communication between these groups and the researchers is important in obtaining direct feedback from the community. It will help them to direct and focus research objectives to address concerns and questions the girls and women in the community may have, in a way they can understand,” Symington said.

The Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research was established in 2011 to promote breast cancer research among Baystate Medical Center, PVSLI and UMass Amherst. One of the goals of the consortium was to accelerate breast cancer research by providing funding of $25,000 to $50,000 grants to obtain data for use to apply for larger grants.

“Less than 3% of applications for federal funding are successful today. To be successful in the grant process today, there needs to be an advocate as part of the research team and evidence of community engagement. Rays of Hope community engagement was a successful aspect of our application for the federal funding. The Rays of Hope Advocacy Council works with the Internal Review Board to be sure that research is relevant to the community,” Makari-Judson said.

Makari-Judson, who also serves as chair of the Baystate Health Breast Network, noted they have “come full circle.”

“Funds are raised locally. Research is done locally. Advocates participate in the decisions about projects to fund that are relevant and engage the community in the work being done, as well as encourage more funds to be raised to support additional research,” she said.

As thousands of area women, men and children prepare to participate in the annual Rays of Hope – Walk and Run Toward a Cure of Breast Cancer, Makari-Judson said it is important for them to know that the model for advancing breast cancer research in the Pioneer Valley is successful “thanks to the ongoing support of the Rays of Hope.”

“We look forward to Rays of Hope providing additional funds in the future to encourage more investigators to pursue breast cancer research, as we build a portrait of breast cancer in the Pioneer Valley and ultimately lead us to prevention and cure,” she added.

NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The National Cancer Institute leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers.