Anniversaries are a natural time to look back and look forward. Breast Cancer UK is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and one of the most important figures during that time is Professor Philippa Darbre, the Emeritus Professor of Oncology at the University of Reading.

As one of the most prominent experts in the field of environmental chemicals and breast cancer, Philippa has been involved with the charity since its inception back in 2001, thanks to one of its co-founders, Clare Dimmer. Remembering Clare, who sadly passed away in 2014 after a long battle with breast cancer, Professor Darbre said: “I knew Clare for a long time, through our involvement in the Women’s Environmental Network. She was very influential in my life – she challenged me out of my comfort zone and persuaded me that what I was doing was of greater importance than just academic – it had a real-life policy and public interest too.”

Professor Darbre’s research interest in breast cancer stretches back to the start of her career as a laboratory researcher at Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK), looking at the effectiveness of cancer treatments. But it was in the early 1990s, after being appointed as a lecturer at the University of Reading that her research began to focus more closely on possible environmental causes of breast cancer. “Soon after I started my role, I sat with a colleague in my office, chewing over a question”, she explains. “What if a chemical in the environment could actually bind to the oestrogen receptor and mess up oestrogen action… what would it mean for breast cancer and indeed for the rest of the human race?”

Philippa’s interest in the subject coincided with a growing scientific consensus that different chemicals could have a demonstrable effect on the way hormones are produced in wildlife and the human body. In 1991, following a conference in America, this led to a new term being coined to describe these chemicals – Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).

Of course, the logical next question is how these EDCs manage to find their way into human tissue. A range of EDCs are commonly found in cosmetics and other household products and, thanks in part to Professor Darbre’s research, BCUK has advice on how to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals. “Given oestrogen is one of the main risk factors for breast cancer, I started to look into whether there are any oestrogenic chemicals in these products such as antiperspirants and deodorants that we’re putting under our arms,” says Darbre.

Professor Darbre goes on to pinpoint an even more fundamental question related to breast cancer: “Why is breast cancer the number one cancer of women?” she asks. “I would say it’s because the breast is fatty, and these chemicals are getting stored and concentrated near to cells which are hormonally sensitive. This means EDCs are very important because breast cancer is a hormonal cancer – it’s a perfect storm.”

Her research established the oestrogenic activity of parabens (compounds used as preservatives in many cosmetics) in human cells. In a 2012 study of breast tissue taken from four sites across the breast, from 40 women undergoing mastectomy for primary breast cancer, parabens were measurable in 99% (158/160) of the samples. Measurements at the sites of oestrogen-responsive tumours showed that half the samples contained sufficient paraben to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells in the laboratory. But with so many EDCs found in cosmetics, Darbre doesn’t think that anyone chemical gives the full picture. Further Breast Cancer UK funded work has shown other estrogenic chemicals (UV filters) were also present in these same breast tissue samples at functionally significant levels. A fuller understanding needs to take account of mixtures of chemicals rather than single compounds. She offers this advice: “At the moment we don’t know what’s safe and what’s not. You might say ‘buy aluminium-free or paraben-free, but we can’t be sure there aren’t other things in there that are equally problematic.

“It is a complex question – you can’t pinpoint a single product or chemical, but I believe long term exposure to low doses of mixtures of chemicals has an effect. So the best advice is to cut down or cut out as many chemicals as possible – I haven’t used an underarm deodorant for more than 20 years and I don’t use creams, lipsticks or anything on my face either.”

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK – one in seven women will get the disease at some point in their life. Yet a shocking fact is how much it has increased in the time Professor Darbre has been an active researcher. “When I first started lecturing at the University of Reading at the beginning of the 1990s, I was giving lectures saying about one in five people would get cancer at some time in their life, and about 1 in 15 women would get breast cancer. Well, look where we are now – it’s more than one in two with cancer and with breast cancer it’s above one in 7.”

Reflecting on the last 20 years, and the work of Breast Cancer UK, Professor Darbre had this to say: “For me, Breast Cancer UK was the first cancer charity that was really taking chemicals very seriously. We were worried, and we felt that if people listened to the message, then prevention was possible.”

She would like to see that work carried on into the future, highlighting the importance of education, and focussing on the next generation, adding: “Chemicals accumulate over a lifetime, so it’s really important that young people are aware of what they can do to prevent falling victim. We need to think about exposure to EDCs in babies, children, and the effects of EDCs on the unborn child during pregnancy.”

With such a long and illustrious career, you might think it would be only natural for Professor Darbre to reflect on those achievements. Yet, when asked what her proudest achievement has been, she has an emphatic response: “I have no proud moment whatsoever because women are still dying of breast cancer. My proud moment will be when no women are dying of breast cancer anymore.”

Building on the huge contribution she has made, there is much work to be done to eradicate breast cancer. Already, over a quarter of cases of breast cancer are preventable, and everyone at Breast Cancer UK is committed to reaching the essential goal to eradicate breast cancer that both she and Clare Dimmer shared.

  • Breast Cancer UK is a member of the EDC Free Europe campaign coalition to put the importance of endocrine disrupting chemicals at the forefront of the regulatory agenda in the UK and Europe. Find out more here.

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