The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers: Transdisciplinary Research on the Role of the Environment in Breast Cancer Etiology

By Hiatt, Robert A.; Haslam, Sandra Z. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers: Transdisciplinary Research on the Role of the Environment in Breast Cancer Etiology


Hiatt, Robert A., Haslam, Sandra Z., Osuch, Janet, Environmental Health Perspectives


OBJECTIVES: We introduce and describe the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC), a research network with a transdisciplinary approach to elucidating the role of environmental factors in pubertal development as a window on breast cancer etiology. We describe the organization of four national centers integrated into the BCERC network.

DATA SOURCES: Investigators use a common conceptual framework based on multiple levels of biologic, behavioral, and social organization across the life span. The approach connects basic biologic studies with rodent models and tissue culture systems, a coordinated multicenter epidemiologic cohort study of prepubertal girls, and the integration of community members of breast cancer advocates as key members of the research team to comprise the network.

DATA EXTRACTION: Relevant literature is reviewed that describes current knowledge across levels of organization. Individual research questions and hypotheses in BCERC are driven by gaps in our knowledge that are presented at genetic, metabolic, cellular, individual, and environmental (physical and social) levels.

DATA SYNTHESIS: As data collection on the cohort, animal experiments, and analyses proceed, results will be synthesized through a transdisciplinary approach.

CONCLUSION: Center investigators are addressing a large number of specific research questions related to early pubertal onset, which is an established risk factor for breast cancer. BCERC research findings aimed at the primary prevention of breast cancer will be disseminated to the scientific community and to the public by breast cancer advocates, who have been integral members of the research process from its inception.

KEY WORDS: breast cancer, cohort, environment, etiology, transdisciplinary science. Environ Health Perspect 117:1814-1822 (2009). doi:10.1289/ehp.0800120 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 16 June 2009]

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The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC) sponsored by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) were established to better understand how environmental factors may influence pubertal development and to enable primary breast cancer prevention strategies. In 2003, after a period of focused and thoughtful advocacy integrated with scientific consultation, BCERCs were awarded to The Fox Chase Comprehensive Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan; the University of Cincinnati, Ohio; and the University of California San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In this review, we define the BCERC research questions and present our common conceptual framework for the etiology of breast cancer and the rationale for a focus on puberty. Then, across multiple levels of biologic, behavioral, and social organization, we highlight our current scientific understanding of the development of the normal mammary gland, the nature and action of breast cancer risk factors, and our understanding of the mechanisms of breast carcinogenesis relevant to early development. Our BCERC experimental approach is driven by the knowledge gaps in this understanding. We conclude with a description of the organization of the BCERC.

Research Questions

We explore whether exposures to environmental factors (e.g., phenols, phthalates, phytoestrogens, genistein, dietary fat, ionizing radiation, psychosocial factors) before and during puberty might set the stage for increased breast cancer risk in adulthood. Multiple hypotheses arc being tested by developing and interrogating rodent models and rodent and human cell culture systems to characterize the molecular basis of mammary gland development over the life span. We seek to determine how environmental agents may affect this development and to better understand the process of breast carcinogenesis. …

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