SCIENCE BLOG: The scientific research we support
Published 9 Mar 2018
It’s British Science week and there are lots of fantastic events and activities across the country to get people exploring and discovering science. Science is at the heart of everything we do at Breast Cancer UK.
The ‘collating, conducting and commissioning’ of scientific research to help us understand the causes of breast cancer is one of our founding charitable objectives and underpins our advocacy, education and awareness messages. If we are to prevent breast cancer, we need to understand what causes breast tumours to form, what encourages them to grow and what encourages their spread to other parts of our body. We need to understand what it is in the world around us that might be making us more vulnerable to breast cancer – because we are more vulnerable to breast cancer now than ever before.
This sort of research is not easy and it’s certainly not cheap. Understanding, in particular, how, when and why certain environmental chemical pollutants could be making us less healthy is a complex and underexplored area. A problem that was recognised in the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) annual report released last week and which focused on the health impacts of pollution.
Several recommendations in the CMO’s report centre on the need to generate and share more data. A view we also hold – it’s the driving force behind our own grant funding programme that supports research into the links between chemicals and breast cancer. Take the research we are supporting at King’s College, London for example. Here Dr. Michael Antoniou and Dr. Robin Mesnage investigated whether different bisphenols could potentially increase breast cancer risk. Bisphenols are chemicals used to make hard plastics and resins, such as those used in some drinks bottles, lunch boxes and the linings of tin cans.
Bisphenol A (BPA) was once the most commonly used bisphenol but is now being phased out by plastics’ manufacturers, because of concerns that it can mimic the natural hormone, oestrogen, which is a concern for breast cancer risk. The problem is many manufacturers are replacing BPA with different chemicals that are structurally similar. Therefore products that claim to be “BPA Free” may still contain different bisphenols but which are still potentially harmful. The King’s College researchers tested alternative bisphenols for oestrogenic activity. Each was able to act as an oestrogen mimic – much like BPA. Worryingly, some bisphenols were more oestrogenic than BPA and so are potentially more hazardous. We’ve just awarded further funding to continue investigating the effects of bisphenol mixtures on breast cancer risk and hope the results will help us to increase pressure on the regulatory authorities and manufacturers to swap bisphenols with safer alternatives.
Another problem highlighted by this week’s CMO report was that we are exposed to combinations of harmful chemicals – not just one chemical at a time. In another research project supported by Breast Cancer UK, researchers at Brunel University explored whether combinations of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) might influence breast cancer development. The chemicals that were tested included propyl paraben (a cosmetics preservative), BPA, DDT (a banned insecticide that still persists in our environment) and benzophenone-3 (a UV filter used often in sunscreen).
Most of us are exposed to relatively low levels of all of these chemicals over our lifetime. Dr Elisabete Silva and colleagues showed that low concentrations of EDCs caused changes resembling early stage breast cancer. Moreover, they found that when EDC mixtures were added, changes were even more significant, suggesting EDC combinations may be more problematic or hazardous than when tested alone. Another interesting aspect of this research was that it used an innovative ‘three dimensional breast cell culture model’, which resembles the human breast more closely than standard cell culture, and which could also be useful as a replacement for animal-based studies. This sort of innovation within research is vital if we are to fill the gaps in human data that are so badly needed.
That’s not all, Breast Cancer UK is also funding work at Leeds University that might lead to possible dietary interventions to help reduce breast cancer recurrence, and research at Reading University that adds to our understanding of chemicals (specifically UV filters) present in breast tissue that might be making us more vulnerable to breast cancer.
As well as looking at chemicals within the breast and the mechanisms by which they may cause harm, we’re also looking to the world around us and trying to understand how people are exposed to these chemicals. Breast Cancer UK recently commissioned a pilot study that assessed the oestrogenicity of five popular UK anti-ageing creams. This work, carried out by Professor Ana Soto from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that all five anti-ageing face creams had oestrogenic activity. It suggests that using just one cream daily could be increasing our exposure to synthetic oestrogens. Add to this, EDCs in our diet, indoor and outdoor air pollution, plastics, pesticides and textiles and it adds up to a complex toxic cocktail of chemicals to which we are all being exposed.
Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, in her report acknowledged, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – and it is why a precautionary approach to chemicals management is undoubtedly needed if we are to prevent unnecessary exposures to potentially harmful chemicals. In the meantime, it is vital we continue to explore the world around us and make new scientific discoveries and Breast Cancer UK is proud to play a small part in that.
None of these scientific research projects could have happened without your generous support; we’d like to thank-you once again for making possible this research.
Find out more about projects we are currently supporting.
Or click if you would like to donate in support of our most recent scientific project – research to help us find out more about how chemical pollutants could be leading to increased breast density, find out more here.