Researcher Awarded $462K NIH Grant to Study Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Breast Cancer Risk in Young Women

Researcher Awarded $462K NIH Grant to Study Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Breast Cancer Risk in Young Women

Research efforts to understand the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on breast cancer risk in young women have been given a boost with a $462,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The grant was given to Susan Sturgeon, DPH, a cancer epidemiologist at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, to expand her research on the impact of EDCs on breast tissue density — a breast cancer risk factor — in college-aged women. 

Exposure to EDCs, including plasticizers (chemicals to make materials softer and more flexible) such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), as well as related compounds, are thought to affect breast density by increasing levels of estrogen and inflammation.

Research focusing on older women has shown how exposure to EDCs — many commonly found in household items and personal care products — can increase breast tissue density. Additionally, animal studies have suggested that mammary cells may be more susceptible to these types of environmental EDCs during breast development up to and through pregnancy. 

This new grant will support a study to measure the effects of EDCs on the breasts of young women “during a window of potential increased susceptibility,” Sturgeon, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology, said in a press release

“Breast density in young women may be as strongly associated with subsequent breast cancer risk as mammographic breast density in older women,” she added. 

Sturgeon and colleagues plan to recruit 100 undergraduate female students at UMass Amherst who have never given birth. The participant’s urine will be tested to measure levels of multiple EDCs, including BPA, bisphenol S, bisphenol F, seven metabolites of phthalates, oxybenzone (found in sunscreen), four parabens (cosmetic preservatives), and antibacterial agents triclosan and triclocarban.

Participants will be required to collect all urine samples over a 24-hour period on three spaced days as EDC exposure can vary substantially throughout the day. Following sample collection, the women will undergo magnetic resonance imaging to measure breast tissue density. 

“The study is innovative because of the multiple time-point exposure measurements, the use of the urinary matrix to measure these chemicals and computerized magnetic resonance imaging to measure breast density in young women,” Sturgeon said. 

“Measuring breast density by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) makes this kind of study possible in younger women, eliminating radiation risk from mammography,” she added.

One of the important goals of the grant is educational, giving undergraduate and graduate students hands-on experience conducting medical research. 

“While working collaboratively with both professors and students, this study has given me the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in participant recruitment, data collection and lab work, truly enhancing my educational experience at UMass beyond the classroom,” said Hannah Guard, an undergraduate student majoring in biochemistry, molecular biology, and public health.