Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers: (BCERC)
In 2002, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) convened a Brainstorming Workshop of expert researchers, clinicians, and advocates to address the interaction of the genomic and environmental factors on breast cancer and identify data gaps, bottlenecks and research needs. The major cross-cutting recommendation was to promote research that would characterize environmental exposures over the lifetime that could alter the risk of breast cancer development. To address these issues, the NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) established the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC) Network in 2003. It was created to study the impact of pre-pubertal exposures that may affect pubertal development and predispose a woman to breast cancer. Pubertal development is one period of the lifespan considered to be a “window of susceptibility,” where the developing breast may be more vulnerable to environment exposures (chemicals, diet, social factors). The BCERC program spanned seven years (2003 – 2010) for a total commitment of $35 million.
The BCERC sought to
Since its beginning in 2003, the consortium has primarily focused on the Puberty Study, a cohort study following 1,200 girls starting at age 6-8 through menarche. It was a collaborative multi-site epidemiologic study of young girls that sought to investigate and identify predictors of early age at onset of puberty, including breast and pubic hair development. They were prospective studies, enrolling young girls at age 6 to 8 years at first visit, and following them forward with periodic visits to assess hallmarks of pubertal development and changes in exposures of interest. The rationale underlying these studies was that early sexual maturation is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, and this may represent a critical period in establishing long-term breast cancer risk. Areas of interest included environmental exposures, including chemicals in personal and household products that may be hormonally active; lifestyle factors, such as food intake and physical activity; body size and development; and psychosocial factors. The Puberty Study has been a rich resource for greatly expanding our knowledge of current patterns of pubertal timing in a contemporary cohort and the influence of environmental factors on pubertal timing.
Investigators collaborated with local Community Outreach and Translation Cores to build and promote partnerships among researchers, community members, and other stakeholders, ensure representation of breast cancer advocates in formulating research questions, assist with participant retention, and development and implementation of tools and materials to communicate study findings to the public and policy makers.
To learn more about these past studies, click here.
In 2009, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) issued joint solicitations to support cooperative agreements to form the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP). The consortium continued its study on the existing female cohort through maturation and addressed additional potential influences on breast cancer risk factors in the population. The program also expanded to include exploration of basic science and, at limited levels, epidemiological and clinical research on gene-environment interactions throughout the female lifespan that may alter the risk for breast cancer. The program also built upon its groundbreaking outreach and translation activities and includes voices of the engaged breast cancer community at multiple levels in dissemination, research, and guidance of the program.
The program was renewed with a request for applications (RFA) in 2015. The BCERP is among a select few NIH projects supporting transdisciplinary research on the interaction of chemical, physical, biological, and social environmental factors with genetic factors within windows of susceptibility throughout a woman’s lifespan. The Coordinating Center will play an integral role in the performance and direction of this program and will require a unique set of scientific and administrative skills. This RFA is part of a renewal of the cooperative NIEHS/NCI program into the basis and mechanisms of genes and environment in breast cancer. All of the research projects, community partners, and Coordinating Center are expected to perform as a transdisciplinary/ multidisciplinary network.
The BCERP, the Window of Susceptibility projects, community partners, and the Coordinating Center are encouraged to perform as a transdisciplinary network through the integration of basic science, population health science, and community partnerships. Center groups and individual investigators and outreach experts collaborate across projects, forming transdisciplinary teams to address complex questions and achieve center-specific goals as well as an overarching goal. The BCERP represents a new paradigm for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a project supporting transdisciplinary research on the interaction of chemical, physical, biological, and social environmental factors with genetic factors during specific windows of susceptibility.
The Window of Susceptibility component of the BCERP emphasizes transdisciplinary studies, encourages collaborations among varied disciplines, and includes bi-directional collaborations with the engaged breast cancer community at large. The study of WOS in the etiology of breast cancer is of special interest and refers to specific time periods in which breast tissue may be most vulnerable to the effects of environmental exposures and may directly or indirectly affect the risk of developing breast cancer. Specific physiologic windows likely exist that represent periods of particular susceptibility to environmental factors that may influence breast cancer risk. Thus, research focused on these critical periods of development may improve our understanding of the roles of environmental factors and their interplay with genetic susceptibility. In addition to continuing study on the existing female cohort through maturation, the BCERP program expands exploration of basic science and, at limited levels, epidemiological and clinical research on gene-environment interactions throughout the windows of susceptibility throughout the female lifespan.
To learn more about these past studies, click here.