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UMass: Researchers Awarded $3.1 Million NIH Grant for Breast Cancer Risk Study

A University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences interdisciplinary research team has received a $3.1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to measure the impact of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables on the breast cancer risk of lactating women.

In the unprecedented research, cancer epidemiologist Dr. Susan Sturgeon, nutritionist Dr. Lindiwe Sibeko and environmental toxicologist Dr. Kathleen Arcaro will use breastmilk to assess whether eating at least eight to 10 daily servings of deeply pigmented and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables reduces biomarkers of breast cancer risk.

“There is a lot of interest in the possibility that an increase in fruits and vegetables decreases breast cancer risk,” says Dr. Sturgeon, professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “But it’s not fully established, and it’s difficult to measure.”

Young mothers face an increased risk of pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC), which is often aggressive, for about a decade postpartum. The researchers hypothesize that fruit and vegetable consumption may reduce inflammation during lactation and weaning, thus lowering the PABC risk. They also will look at the breastmilk’s DNA methylation, an epigenetic response that blocks production of tumor-suppressing proteins by turning off gene expression, which in turn increases breast cancer risk.

“We’re targeting breast cancer risk but also putting into place multiple supports that will address major barriers around increasing fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Sibeko, assistant professor of nutrition in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

“These results will greatly expand our knowledge of how diet alters molecular pathways in a specific organ, ultimately contributing to both breast cancer etiology and prevention,” the researchers write.

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