Komen-Funded Research: Seeking Causes of Breast Cancer

Do certain products cause breast cancer? Does the air we breathe contribute to breast cancer rates? Do X-rays increase an individual’s breast cancer risk? It seems like we’re daily inundated with news stories warning about the health risks of something in our environment. Yet the difficult truth is that there is a lack of substantive data linking environmental exposures and the risk of breast cancer. So there is much we don’t know – even though much is claimed or reported.

In 2001, Susan G. Komen® funded a study with the Institute of Medicine to examine the state of the science on environmental issues in breast cancer development. The report recommended large-scale research over the course of a woman’s life, with a goal of developing interventions that can reduce breast cancer risk.

Based on that report, Komen has made it a key priority for our organization’s research investment to understand potential environmental impacts on breast cancer development and treatment – and to do so in ways that are scientifically sound, through large-scale and peer-reviewed research.

That’s why last week Komen announced approximately $4.5 million in new research funding across five new grants to understand a variety of environmental-related issues. These grants, which are part of $42 million in Komen’s 2013 portfolio of new research grants, will examine the impact of radiation exposure on breast cancer development; the potential impact of exposure to environmental pollutants in areas where breast cancers are disproportionately high, or in so-called “cancer clusters”; the impact of air pollution on breast cancer development; and the role in breast cancer development of synthetic chemicals (phthalates) found in consumer products and medications.

In each of these grants, we are attempting to move beyond theories to a solid base of scientific evidence to understand the specific role of environmental exposures and breast cancer development. These environmental grants will build on the nearly $14 million Komen has already invested (into 38 research grants) in studying environmental and lifestyle factors that may affect breast cancer risk, such as chemicals, diet, weight, exercise and alcohol use.

Three studies propose innovative ways to analyze an incredible amount of data, taking into account important breast cancer risk factors, place of residence, timing of exposure, genetic makeup, and socioeconomics. This type of analysis at multiple levels allows for unraveling of the actual effects of the exposure apart from any other unrelated effects. In addition, these studies will be conducted in unique populations, which will allow investigators to identify subgroups that may be particularly vulnerable to the health effects of a certain exposure.

Komen is also funding two additional projects that will determine the risks and benefits associated with medical radiation used in the detection and the treatment of breast cancer, so we can learn how to minimize exposures while giving maximum benefit to the patient. One project will determine the personalized radiation dose that each patient receives during her breast cancer screening with a new type of three-dimensional mammography known as tomosynthesis.

Another study aims to determine how radiation to the breast can damage the heart, and in addition, develop therapies that could be given during radiation therapy to minimize cardiac injury.

The 2013 grants add to Komen’s investment of more than $790 million in breast cancer research – the largest investment in research of any nonprofit outside of the U.S. government. This year’s environmental grants have an incredible potential to increase our knowledge of how breast cancer develops, as we seek to find cures.

Komen cannot fund this type of research without the generous support of our friends, Race for the Cure participants, survivors and sponsors. Three out of every four net dollars raised locally are invested locally to help reach, support and educate women and men about breast cancer. The other dollar comes back to our community in the form of better treatments, improved screening and the hope of better ultimate outcomes. Together, we can save lives and end breast cancer forever.

Since 1999, Susan G. Komen® St. Louis has contributed nearly $9 million to Komen’s national research grants. At the same time, more than $20 million raised locally and nationwide has come back to St. Louis facilities to fund breast cancer research. Read more about Komen’s 2013 research investment – including $1 million granted to St. Louis researchers – here.

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