NIEHS and the Future of Breast Cancer Research.
Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD, DABT, ATS, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is of the 27 research institutes and centers that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and its mission is to discover how the environmental affects people in order to promote healthier lives. For years, NIEHS has played a leadership role in funding and conducting studies on the ways in which environmental exposures increase breast cancer risk.
Studies suggest that exposures to cancer-causing chemicals during development may affect breast cancer risk later in life. During early childhood and adolescence, developing breast tissue is much more susceptible to the damaging effects of environmental chemicals. Results from studies have shown that early exposures to some chemicals may keep the mammary gland in an immature state for longer periods, increasing its susceptibility to chemical insult. In an effort to uncover the links between early environmental exposures and cancer risk, NIEHS partnered with the National Cancer Institute to fund the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) in 2003 to investigate the impact of prenatal and childhood exposures on mammary gland development, and the potential of these exposures to alter the risk of breast cancer in later adulthood.
Funded BCERP centers have worked in close collaboration on two different approaches to the early exposure hypothesis: using basic science techniques in laboratory animals and cell cultures, and using epidemiologic studies in human populations. In addition, each center has a community outreach component to ensure that the views and concerns of the breast cancer advocacy community are heard and that the research findings are disseminated to the public.
The new NIEHS Strategic Plan incorporate numerous themes that promote many of the successful efforts that have worked in the BCERP program, such as research into susceptibility (goal #2), training (goal #8), and outreach and education (goal #11). The NIEHS Strategic Plan will provide the foundation for productive environmental health research into breast cancer and other diseases with an environmental component.