Marin Independent Journal: October 15, 2023

Breast Cancer Research Center Launched
by Nancy Isles Nation, IJ Reporter

A new federally funded research center that will investigate environmental links to breast cancer and reasons for Marin and other Bay Area counties was announced in San Rafael yesterday.

The University of California at San Francisco-based Bay Area Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Center will be a collaborative partnership led by UCSF and including the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services and the grassroots activist organization Marin Breast Cancer Watch.

At a gathering of national political leaders, research professionals and activists at the San Rafael Community Center yesterday, Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said a vow he made is being fulfilled.

Almost one year ago, as a featured speaker at a community conference on breast cancer at the same location, Olden said the NIEHS would seek federal funding to create research centers throughout the United States.

That promise was kept yesterday with the announcement of four centers including the one in the Bay Area. The centers will be receive $35 million in grants over seven years from the NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute - both part of the National Institutes of Health.

Olden told the gathering of about 100 yesterday that seven-year funding is unusual for the NIH and that most projects are supported for three-to-five years.

"That indicates our seriousness with what we see this problem to be," Olden said. "We don't think it can be achieved in three-to-five years."

Marin activists called the establishment of the center "a validation for the environmental breast cancer movement."

"It's a recognition the environment does play a role in breast cancer," said Janice Barlow, the executive director of Marin Breast Cancer Watch. "It's an area we have to look at and now there is a methodology that can be used."

The research will include a basic-science component using mice to study cell responses to a variety of environmental factors, according to Dr. Robert Hiatt of Berkeley, who will direct the new center.

A second component, led by Lawrence Kushi of Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, will be an epidemiological study, following a group of pre-adolescent girls from Marin, San Francisco, and Alameda through puberty.

The goal of the project is to better understand the shift toward earlier puberty among adolescent girls, to observe environmental, social and behavioral factors that affect them and to observe the interplay of genetics and these factors.

"We are developing the breast cancer program because we recognize that most of these diseases are caused by the interaction between genetics and the environment," Olden said. "It has been said that genetics loads the gun but it's the environment that pulls the trigger."

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, said Marin is the perfect petri dish for this kind of research.

"I know people in my community are going to work together in partnership with the center to make sure this happens," Woolsey told the audience.

Woolsey, who said her mother and grandmother died of breast cancer, has worked with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Larry Meredith of the county Health and Human Services department to try to find the cause of the high rate of breast cancer in Marin and other Bay Area counties.

Breast cancer survivor and activist Fern Orenstein was gratified with the response from the NIH and its willingness to include the community in its research.

"Community-based research is slowly being embraced by the research world," Orenstein said. "It provides numerous benefits for research projects and their outcomes. We are redefining success in research today."

Other partners in the center include the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the California Department of Health Services and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

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 interact as a single program with some specialization at each center.

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