Understanding the impact of environmental carcinogens on breast cancer risk

Making Breast Cancer Prevention a Priority

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What are the best, bold new ideas for how we could prevent breast cancer?

This was the big question behind a recent competition sponsored by the California Breast Cancer Research Program.

I attended the final round of the competition via livestream and was impressed by the variety and creativity of the proposals presented.

The California Breast Cancer Research Program

The California Breast Cancer Research Program (CBCRP) is an organization that I’m personally familiar with because I’ve served as an advocate reviewer several times on panels reviewing breast cancer research proposals for funding under the program.

This organization is not very well known outside the state of California but truly deserves to be. CBCRP’s mission is “to prevent and eliminate breast cancer by leading innovation in research, communication and collaboration in the California scientific and lay communities.”

The types of breast cancer research projects CBCRP funds are wide-ranging and include everything from improving understanding of the basic biology of breast cancer and the process of metastasis, to developing better methods of detection and diagnosis, to developing innovative approaches to treatment. The focus is on innovation and research that is not already being pursued elsewhere. In addition, there is special emphasis on areas that are underfunded–such as reducing environmental exposures that increase breast cancer risk, addressing disparities in outcomes across populations, as well as primary prevention of breast cancer.

The organization receives funding from the state tax on cigarettes, as well as individual donations. Since 1994, CBCRP has awarded more than $280 million in research funds to major academic and other scientific institutions across the state.

The Global Challenge to Prevent Breast Cancer

Last fall, CBCRP launched its “Global Challenge to Prevent Breast Cancer”, calling on researchers and advocates to submit their best ideas for how to prevent breast cancer. From the dozens of applications submitted, a group of ten finalists was selected to present their proposals on May 15, 2019, in person on a livestream broadcast.

The program was introduced by Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch, M.D., MPH, the Director of CBCRP. She noted that, although there have been advances in treatment, rates of diagnosis have changed little in the last three decades. And yet, less than ten percent of the money spent globally on breast cancer research goes to prevention.

Dr. Kavanaugh-Lynch stressed that the focus of the competition was on primary prevention.  She explained that primary prevention means “changing our environment and reducing our exposures.”

CBCRP will invest a total of $15 million over the next five years in the winning proposals. The Challenge is part of the Biden Cancer Initiative’s nationwide effort to double the rate of progress against cancer.

The Winning Proposals

A panel of expert judges chose one proposal from a researcher and one from an advocate to receive awards.  In addition, the audience (including livestream attendees) got to vote for one proposal to receive the “audience choice” award.

The winning proposal from a researcher was presented by Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., Professor and Chair, City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her proposal focuses on improving our understanding of the impact of environmental carcinogens on young women’s risk for breast cancer and helping young women learn to avoid exposures where possible and advocate for changes in public policy that would reduce risk.

The winning proposal from an advocate was presented by Nancy Buermeyer, M.S., Senior Policy Strategist, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. The proposal she presented  will study the effectiveness of policies that reduce air pollution near ports on reducing exposures to chemicals linked to breast cancer.

And the audience choice award went to Michele Atlan, Vice President, Breast Cancer Care & Research Fund. Ms. Atlan’s proposal will investigate a possible way to repurpose an inexpensive and abundant natural cooking ingredient–curcumin–to prevent breast cancer, while also enhancing skin health.

Some of the other ideas presented by finalists included mapping the molecular information in human biospecimens to discover previously unknown causes of breast cancer; identifying environmental determinants of breast density, which is associated with increased risk; and improving chemical safety testing to capture known information about breast cancer risk.

Overall, I was struck by the wide range of ideas presented. It was hard to choose one best proposal. The competition highlighted that “prioritizing prevention” is going to mean approaching this challenging goal not from one or two but from many different angles.

Bios of the ten finalists and their “Bold Ideas” are available on CBCRP’s website in the program for the event.

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Photo Credit: Grant Ritchie via Unsplash