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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UMass Amherst Team Conducts Pilot Study Examining Chemicals, Breast Density

Associate Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Susan Sturgeon will team with Dr. Kathleen Arcaro, Professor of Environmental Toxicology in the UMass Amherst Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, on a one-year pilot study of bisphenol A (BPA), phthalate and related compound levels and effects on breast density around the time when a woman is breast-feeding her first child. The study is funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

[Photo: Dr. Susan Sturgeon]

In addition, Dr. Sturgeon has a one-year, $25,000 grant from the Springfield, MA-based charity Rays of Hope for Breast Cancer Research to conduct a feasibility study in a college-age population. It will look for a possible association between urinary BPA and phthalate levels and breast density, a well-known risk factor for breast cancer. Rays of Hope research support emphasizes “a deeper mechanistic understanding of how obesity, diabetes and environmental exposures interact to alter breast cancer risk and prognosis,” the organization notes.

Dr. Sturgeon adds, “If we see BPA and phthalates levels are higher in those who have higher breast density, this may indicate that these chemicals are having an effect on the breast health in young women. This study will also give a snapshot of what levels of chemicals there are in college-aged women, which is largely unknown.” She and colleagues will use the new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences on campus to conduct the breast density measures.

Dr. Sturgeon says, “Not many studies have looked at environmental chemicals and breast cancer risk in younger women, and the findings are inconsistent and controversial. But there is some suggestion that the effect of environmental chemicals such as phthalates might be stronger in premenopausal women and in the breasts of women near the time when they have their first child.”

To address this latter factor, she and Dr. Arcaro will recruit about 30 women who give birth at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. They will collaborate with Dr. Nada Kawar, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UMass Medical School/Baystate.

Dr. Sturgeon says, “We will be collecting markers of inflammation in breast milk as well as looking at breast density in relation to the environmental chemicals. The hypothesis here is that breast tissue might be more susceptible to environmental exposures that occur before the breast fully differentiates after childbirth and completing lactation.

The researchers note that because these are small studies it may be hard to see an association of environmental chemical exposure and inflammation, for example, but they will be watching carefully for evidence that would support a larger study.