Marin Independent Journal: June 18, 2023

Studies focus on answers to breast cancer
by Jennifer Upshaw, IJ Reporter

Friday, June 18, 2023 - Meetings have been held, information has been gathered and networking is underway. Having laid the groundwork for a major medical study looking at a potential link between environmental factors and breast cancer, researchers are ready to get to it.

"Where we are now is not the beginning or the end - it's the middle of a very long process," said Dr. Bob Hiatt, the Bay Area Breast Cancer and Environment Research Center's principal investigator.

"I really believe its success is going to be measured by how collaborative it can be."

Hiatt and other researchers have one year's worth of work behind them at the University of California at San Francisco-based center, one of four in the nation given $35 million in grant money over seven years from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.

Last night, participating researchers and a local grassroots community group hosted a community forum in Mill Valley to share what's been accomplished in the first year and where the group is headed.

Critical to the process is feedback from community members, a requirement from the NIH, officials said.

Researchers from UCSF, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, and public health officials, among others, will collaborate. Locally, San Rafael-based Marin Breast Cancer Watch is leading the public outreach campaign.

This fall, the real work begins, researchers said.

Recruiting for a study involving 400 young girls born at Kaiser hospitals in Marin, San Francisco and Alameda counties will begin. Researchers will follow the girls, ages 6 or 7, through puberty, looking to see if there is a connection between early puberty and breast cancer.

A study involving the breast development of mice, both cancer-prone and healthy, also will be conducted.

Studies also will be conducted at centers at the University of Cincinnati, Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Philadelphia's Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Bringing the researchers into Marin and the other communities being studied, is an approach called "community-based participatory research," Marin Breast Cancer Watch Executive Director Janice Barlow told the dozens of community members who turned out to ask questions and offer feedback.

"I think we're here tonight because of our historically high rates of breast cancer in our community," she said. "The end goal is to improve the health of our community ... it ensures what is studied is relevant to the community."

Dr. Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist with Kaiser Permanente and co-investigator of the study involving young girls, told the group that puberty appeared to be starting earlier - a significant change since exposure to estrogen would rise over such a girl's lifetime.

While physical breast examinations involving young girls may strike some as touchy, Greenspan emphasized the importance of, for the first time, getting data from a normal, diverse population of subjects.

"Obviously this is a sensitive issue," she said. "But, we really hope to get a better understanding of puberty and why."

Some in the audience felt the study wasn't broad enough.

Burton Goldberg, the author of books on cancer and alternative medicine, wanted to know why the study couldn't be expanded to include biopsy tissue obtained from local hospitals to look for potential suspects such as pesticides.

"We've spent $3 billion on the war on cancer and we're no further along today than we were," he said. "Don't you think it's about time we did that?"

San Geronimo Valley's Kathy Perkins wanted to know the future of knowledge derived from the effort. The most stellar research, she said, was meaningless unless it was easily accessible to the community.

"You can do the best study in the world, but what are you going to do with it?" she said. "I think that's hard core important. That the access and the information is blaring out there, almost like you can't miss it."

Beyond feedback from small groups sounding off everything from working with pre-teens to breaking down barriers to public participation, Hiatt said the questions had value to researchers.

"A lot of the questions that we're posed are hard to answer, but I want you to know we're paying attention to these types of questions," he said. "We do want to hear your questions."

Contact Jennifer Upshaw via e-mail at jupshaw@marinij.com

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