UWM nurses work with the UW on women’s “Windows of Susceptibility” on landmark breast-cancer study

Pang Vang works on breast cancer education at the House of Peace Community Nursing Center.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee community nursing centers are among the partners working with the University of Wisconsin (UW) on a major research project on breast cancer.

Researchers at the UW Carbone Cancer Center have begun a five-year project to study how exposure to certain environmental factors during three phases of a woman’s life may affect her risk for developing breast cancer. Cancer survivors themselves helped guide the questions about diet, environmental toxins and other exposures that the study will investigate.

The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP), a joint effort funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, awarded a $445,000 five-year grant to oncologist Dr. Michael Gould and cancer epidemiologist Amy Trentham-Dietz to conduct the study of women’s “windows of susceptibility.”

Working through the UWM College of Nursing Institute for Urban Health Partnerships (IUHP), community nurses like Pang Vang are providing Madison researchers with information on the exposure-related factors women want to see investigated. Factors women have asked the researchers to look at include diet, indoor and outdoor chemicals, occupational exposures and chemicals in water.

The researchers, in turn, will provide community partners like Vang and IUHP with results of the research so that women can use it to decrease their risk of breast cancer. “Armed with the latest evidence-based information, I can truly educate the community about breast-cancer prevention,” says Vang, a clinical instructor at the House of Peace.

“The community partners plan to provide the Wisconsin community with some of the clear evidence-based messages that come out of research. BCERP research should allow us to understand additional causes of breast cancer and to bring information that ultimately can assist people to make choices that can limit their risk of breast cancer. Prevention is the ultimate goal,” said Mary Pat Berry, of the Madison Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The Komen organization is another community partner in the project. The Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition and Wisconsin Cancer Council are also partners in the research.

Gould, a professor of oncology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (UW SMPH) will conduct research using rat models. Trentham-Dietz, associate professor of population health sciences at UW School of Medicine and Public Health  will compare the results of the rat-model research to archived DNA of more than 7,000 Wisconsin women.

“Our community partners have helped us shape this research to understand what women are concerned about, and what questions they would like us to research,’’ says Trentham-Dietz.

Past research has shown that the impact of environmental factors on breast cells is highly dependent on the breast’s physiological and developmental status at the time of exposure. For example, Japanese women who were in puberty and exposed to high levels of radiation from atomic bombs during World War II showed higher rates of breast cancer when they reached their 50s and 60s.

Researchers will look at three of these windows of susceptibility, which coincide with hormonal landmarks in a woman’s life. The windows are childhood (rats at three weeks); adolescence (rats at seven weeks); and peri-menopause (rats at 65 weeks).

Among the researchers’ goals is determining whether several environmental factors previously shown to have influenced breast-cancer susceptibility during adolescence might also influence cancer rates when introduced during the childhood and older-adult windows.

The Wisconsin project is one of eight BCERP-funded studies on windows of susceptibility across the country. Researchers from all sites will meet regularly to discuss findings, and that collaboration is an exciting development for breast cancer research, Trentham-Dietz said.

Bringing experts together can really move research forward faster,” she added.


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