Experts: Research fails to address environmental factors in breast cancer causes
An interagency panel tasked with studying how the U.S. spends money in the study and prevention of breast cancer said on Tuesday that more money should be spent to study environmental causes of the disease as well as how women can prevent it. According to the New York Times, the group has concluded that funds devoted to breast cancer are being spent inefficiently and without much coordination between agencies tackling the disease.
The committee, made up of one-third scientists, one-third government officials and one-third members of advocacy groups, was empaneled in accordance with 2008’s Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act. It presented its findings in the report, “Breast Cancer and the Environment — Prioritizing Prevention,” emphasized environmental factors, which included behaviors like diet, alcohol intake and exercise; exposure to chemicals like pesticides, industrial compounds and the dyes and fragrances in makeup, clothing and food; as well as drugs, radiation exposure and factors tied to social status and socioeconomic conditions.
The study noted that scientists have long known that a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause cancer. The question is what environmental factors are driving U.S. cancer rates. Why, for example, do women who move to the U.S. from Japan develop breast cancer at the same rate as American women? Their genetics are the same, so environmental causes would appear to bear the blame.
Committee co-chair Michael Gould, a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told the Times, “We know things like radiation might cause breast cancer, but we don’t know much that we can say specifically causes breast cancer in terms of chemicals.”
The two main federal agencies studying breast cancer, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, each spend about 10 percent of their total funds allotted to breast cancer study on prevention. The committee declined to say, however, what percentage should be spent.
“We’re hedging on that on purpose,” Gould told the Times. “It wasn’t the role of the committee to suggest how much.”
Another committee co-chair, Dr. Michele Forman, an epidemiologist and professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, said that there is currently little coordination among agencies studying breast cancer, leading to inadequacies in some areas and redundancies in others.
Forman believes that epidemiologists need to study the effects of environmental exposures at all stages of a woman’s life, from gestation forward. Some animals, she said, are good models for the study of breast cancer in humans and should be used more.
She pointed to the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent cervical cancer by preventing HPV, the cause of 99.7 percent of cervical cancers, as an example of where breast cancer medicine could eventually go.
“I look forward to the day when we have an early preventive strategy for breast cancer,” she said.
[image via Shutterstock]