10 March, 2021

2020 has been a productive year for our research. While 2020 brought us many unexpected challenges, it also brought exciting developments! Initial results from the research you helped fund have identified new techniques that will improve investigations of bisphenols (chemicals found in plastics and certain consumer products).

The research also identified crucial genes and cellular pathways within the breast that are altered by bisphenols. And which may promote breast cancer development.

We’re working hard to learn more about these developments. This vital work brings us closer to preventing more cases of breast cancer. So, rest assured, although the pandemic has brought challenges, our scientific progress continues to make a difference.

Productive year for our research

After the Christmas holidays, our PhD student, Kerri Palmer, and I returned to work to discover that we had a short letter accepted for publication in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. In it we challenged the reliability of the method being used to determine the level of bisphenol A (BPA) exposure in humans. We believe that it underestimates just how much BPA – a potential health risk – is present in the environment.

Kerri’s first day back also coincided with the start of the Honours student’s (4th-year undergraduates) projects. So she hit the ground running. The students, who will be supervised by Kerri, were assigned projects that aim to investigate the stability of bisphenol compounds. Kerri is using these chemicals in her animal-free research project, EDCs and Breast Density.

The most well-known bisphenol is BPA, an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) that is found in many common household items like plastic bottles, storage containers, can linings, and paper receipts. Previous research suggests that BPA may leach from these objects and be absorbed into the body. Where it mimics crucial hormones such as oestrogen and has a negative impact on health, including breast cancer risk. Kerri’s PhD focuses on investigating this in detail.

Springtime lockdown

Kerri, with help from her project students, hopes to identify optimum laboratory storage conditions for BPA. Which will improve the accuracy of experiments involving these chemicals. Interestingly, this work appears relatively undocumented in the scientific literature so Kerri is very excited to see what results she can obtain in her final year, to fill this gap and expand current knowledge of how bisphenols may be accurately measured in the laboratory.

By March, we were suddenly faced with an unprecedented situation. All laboratories and research centres were closed, and working from home became the norm due to the pandemic. This was a step into the unknown for us all, and it took a few weeks to get used to. Before the lockdown, Kerri was already working on some computer-based projects. She could continue working on these over the coming months when access to the laboratory was restricted. This work would include identifying a number of crucial genes and cellular pathways within the breast that may be changed by BPA and may promote breast cancer development. These findings would go on to form the basis of Kerri’s first experiments once laboratories could reopen.

Summer’s ray of light

The July sunshine brought a ray of light as access to laboratories was regained, bringing with it just a hint of normality. Due to the high volume of research being undertaken in our research institute, numbers were strictly capped and shift working had to be implemented. In spite of this, Kerri managed to complete some initial experiments resulting from her computer-generated work. She also started work to create an animal-free 3D model of the breast using human cells. This model was developed by a previous lab member and is just like a normal breast structure. Kerri will use this model and other techniques to identify changes to breast cells that occur upon BPA exposure. This will help us to understand how BPA affects the normal breast and how it contributes to the promotion of breast cancer.

Autumn leaves more exciting news

Kerri’s work on bisphenol stability experiments continued and proved much more complex than originally anticipated. By the autumn, she was in the process of a long-term experiment to identify how certain storage conditions affect bisphenol concentrations, as this could affect experimental results. As mentioned, this section of work is very exciting as not much is currently known about this within the scientific community. So the data Kerri produces could be extremely significant and interesting to analyse.

Winter – the end of a challenging yet exciting year

It’s fair to say that 2020 threw many challenges Kerri’s way. She has done a great job adapting to them and is determined to work hard in the final year of her PhD. She hopes to produce some interesting findings and to contribute new knowledge to the wider scientific community about bisphenol A. And, its uses in the laboratory and exactly how it may be contributing to breast cancer development.

We’re now looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that 2021 will bring as we continue the vital scientific work your donations allow us to continue. All of which helps to prevent the preventable.

Professor Val Speirs

A link to Kerri’s published letter can be found here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587(20)30068-1/fulltext

This project is co-funded by Animal Free Research UK.

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