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June 2004 Issue

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Breast Cancer Study Targets Prepubescent Girls

Published June 2004

Girls as young as 6 and 7 years old will be recruited for a study of environmental effects on puberty and the eventual risk of breast cancer.

The "Growing Up Female" study is part of a $33 million nationwide investigation. It will track about 450 girls for six years to determine how chemicals in the air, water, and food and physical, biological, social and genetic factors determine female development and maturation - and possibly the risk of developing breast cancer.

The Cincinnati component of the study will be conducted by scientists at the College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC). It will be supported by a $9.6 million, 7-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

"Sources of environmental exposure are difficult to determine, because we eat and drink cancer-causing chemicals every day," says Sue Heffelfinger, MD, PhD, associate professor and codirector of UC's new Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Center.

Of 2,800 commonly used chemicals, she says, 44 have been proven to cause breast cancer in animals. Most studies to date, however, focused on the harm each chemical causes independently, not on how chemicals interact with genetic variations that make some people more likely to be harmed by exposure.

The Cincinnati researchers, says Robert Bornschein, PhD, director of UC's Department of Environmental Health, will monitor the girls' hormone levels and test for heavy metals like lead, pesticides such as DDT, phytoestrogens, and compounds found in plastics. This study will also document how diet, exercise, stress and obesity affect development during puberty.

M. Kathryn Brown, PhD, associate professor of environmental health, has worked closely with the local breast cancer advocacy community to make "Growing Up Female" work. "This project is possible because of the advocates' untiring efforts to promote breast cancer research, and their willingness to work side-by-side with us," Dr. Brown said.

According to Jane E. Henney, MD, senior vice president and provost for health affairs at UC, "This kind of information will allow us to develop strategies so that the risk doesn't become a reality. The work we do here in Cincinnati holds the potential to improve the health of future generations here and everywhere.

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