New Bay Area center will unite local experts in breast cancer research

By Eve Harris

A new federally funded Bay Area center will bring together local health experts to investigate possible environmental links to breast cancer and the high incidence of the disease in some regional counties.

Announcement of the new Bay Area Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Center was made today (October 14) by the National Institutes of Health.

UCSF will serve as lead institution for the new Center in partnership with Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and Marin Breast Cancer Watch. Collaborative partners also include Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the California Department of Health Services, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services.

Robert Hiatt, MD, PhD, director for population sciences at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center, will direct the new Center. Project leaders are Zena Werb, PhD, professor and vice chair of anatomy at UCSF; Lawrence Kushi, ScD, associate director, division of research at Kaiser; and Janice Barlow, RN, executive director of Marin Breast Cancer Watch.

Headquartered at UCSF, the new Bay Area Center will be organized as a “center without walls” with research and community activities performed at several sites. It is one of four centers across the country funded through a new initiative of the NIH that will study the impact of prenatal-to-adult environmental exposures that may predispose women to breast cancer. The centers as a group are supported jointly by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, both agencies institutes of the NIH, at $5 million a year over seven years for a total of $35 million.

The other centers are at the University of Cincinnati; Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia; and Michigan State University in East Lansing.  The four centers will network and interact as a single program, with some specialization at each center.

“The NIH support will enable us to direct and expand our efforts toward building a strong, scientific and community-based response to the perplexing problem of breast cancer in Bay Area communities,” Hiatt said.

The rate of breast cancer in Marin County has been reported as among the highest in the country since the early 1970s, and there are also longterm concerns about elevated rates of cancer, including breast cancer, in the Bay View Hunter’s Point community of San Francisco, according to Hiatt.

The new Center will focus its research on these two counties and also Alameda County. Research studies will focus initially on two projects. Both are related to a hypothesis that changes in breast tissue during adolescence, potentially influenced by environmental factors, may create conditions in young women that put them at risk for breast cancer later in life.

UCSF’s Werb will lead the basic science research.  Recognized for her work in the field of mammary gland development, she will use a mouse model to study cell responses to a variety of environmental stressors.

Kaiser’s Kushi will lead an epidemiological study following a cohort of Bay Area seven- and eight-year-old girls through puberty.  The goal of this project is to better understand the shift toward earlier puberty among adolescent girls; identify environmental, social and behavioral exposures in young girls; and observe the interplay between genetics and these environmental exposures.

In addition, community advocate Barlow, of the Marin Breast Cancer Watch group, will lead an outreach project that disseminates information about breast cancer and the environment to the public.  Maintaining a dialogue between scientists and the community will be a key element of the new Center’s effort.

Breast cancer remains the most common cancer for women in the US, and geographic clusters have stimulated public health concern and driven much of the current research into the relationship between breast cancer and the environment, according to Hiatt.

The new Center is the result of grassroots effort that has taken place over the past few years.  Because of high disease rates in the county, Marin Breast Cancer Watch convened a town hall in 2002 that brought together cancer prevention advocates, health care professionals, community members, scientists, and government officials. Kenneth Olden, PhDMD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was among those who attended, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), a long-time leader on women’s health issues, worked with him to secure federal funding for the Bay Area center.