A team of researchers led by a Michigan State University scientist has been awarded $14 million to identify risk factors for breast cancer in young women, focusing on growth, diet, physical activity and body size during a woman’s lifetime.
The five-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Ellen Velie of the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Epidemiology, will include the largest sample in the United States of black women younger than 50 diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Risk factors for breast cancer vary by age and tumor characteristics, and there hasn’t been enough research on breast cancer in young women,” Velie said. “Breast cancer in these women often is more aggressive and associated with a worse prognosis.”
Though white women and wealthier women (both white and black) are at a higher risk for breast cancer after age 50, black women (and it also appears poorer women) are at increased risk before age 40.
“We don’t yet have a clear picture about what causes these distinct patterns,” Velie said.
Black women also are at a higher risk for tumors with the worse prognosis, she added.
“This is groundbreaking research because it links the social and nutritional determinants of health during a woman’s lifetime with breast cancer in understudied young women,” said Marsha D. Rappley, dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine.
By looking at risk factors such as early life growth patterns, physical activity, diet, body size and related genes during a woman’s lifetime, Velie and her team hope to identify why women develop tumors with specific characteristics.
“Research shows that early life events, especially during puberty, can impact later risk,” she said. “We want to study how these early life factors may modify later risk of breast cancer.”
That information then can be used to develop interventions to help women prevent the disease.
“Given the dramatic increase in obesity and type-2 diabetes in both adults and children, it also is imperative we understand associations between these factors and breast cancer among groups at highest risk for these conditions.”
The researchers will study 2,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 2010 and 2014 in metropolitan Detroit and Los Angeles County. They will be identified by a National Cancer Institute cancer registry. Another 2,000 women without breast cancer will be randomly selected from these two areas.
“We have an amazing, cross-disciplinary team of committed scientists from fields including social science, epidemiology, survey design, statistical genetics, physiology and pathology,” Velie said.
Co-investigators helping to lead the effort include Kendra Schwartz of Wayne State University and Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, and Katherine Henderson and Leslie Bernstein at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles. The University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center is also helping to identify subjects for the study.
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