first annual BCRF scientific conference 2002
Leading breast cancer researchers gathered in October, 2002, for The Breast Cancer Research Foundation's inaugural Scientific Conference, held in conjunction with its annual Symposium and Luncheon. The one-day Conference, underwritten with generous support from BCRF Advisory Board member Muriel Siebert and hosted by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, was enthusiastically received by all who attended.
The investigators-all of whom are supported by grants from the Foundation-hailed from 17 states and Israel. This was the first occasion for the Foundation to act as a convener, in bringing eminent scientists together to share discoveries, compare data, and explore opportunities for collaboration.
The number of researchers supported by Foundation grants has increased greatly; in 2002 alone, the funded scientists grew from 50 to 63. As noted by BCRF grantee Dr. Edith Perez (Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville) in a letter to the Foundation last year, "One of the best parts of the BCRF is the group itself, a group that distinguishes itself by professionalism, focus, and clear goals for success." A natural outgrowth of this shared group identity was a scientific conference. "We are all working toward the same common goal," said Medical Advisory Board Chairman and breast-cancer oncologist Larry Norton, MD, who moderated the Conference. "Yet funding by The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is so enormously powerful because it encourages truly innovative science."
The Conference focused on new developments in research related to the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Inherited mutations in either gene are known to dramatically increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. Six research projects-all funded by BCRF grants-were highlighted as part of the Conference, and investigators leading those projects presented updates of their research to their colleagues. All BCRF researchers who attended, including non-presenters, joined in the lively discussions following each presentation. Afterward, members of the Foundation's Advisory Board were invited to attend a "Wrap-Up" session.
The presentations included advances in both clinical and basic science research. The following scientists presented their latest work:
Mary-Claire King, PhD, a breast cancer geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, shared news of the progress of The New York Breast Cancer Study, a project she leads with Joan Marks, MS, Director Emerita, The Human Genetics program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Initiated in 1996, this study evaluates the risk of breast and ovarian cancer due to inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 in New York City area patients who have been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and who have Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. This ethnic group provides a unique opportunity to study the risks of inherited breast cancer because three of the most common mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have been passed down through generations in this population. Furthermore, the information gleaned from studying inherited breast cancer eventually may be applied more generally to sporadic breast cancer cases.
The researchers have found that the risk of breast cancer among women who inherit these mutations is exceedingly high. They are also investigating non-genetic factors, such as exercise during the teenage years and a woman's age at her first full-term pregnancy, to see whether they modify breast cancer risk in these women.
Ephrat Levy-Lahad, MD, of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Israel, is conducting a sister study of Ashkenazi women in Israel in collaboration with Dr. King and Ms. Marks; she presented an overview of the Israeli findings to date. Together, the two research groups are investigating differences in breast cancer risk among women in the Israeli study versus those in the New York study.
Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, of the University of Chicago, is working to understand why the risk of breast cancer is higher among young black women, compared to young white women. While mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 are observed primarily in hereditary breast cancer, studies have suggested that these genes may also play a role in the development of sporadic tumors. In some cases, the BRCA1 gene may be inactivated (or silenced) by a chemical change known as methylation, without altering the genetic code. Young black women may be more susceptible to methylation changes, Dr. Olopade suspects. She and her colleagues are investigating methylation patterns in BRCA1 in both breast tumors and in breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory.
Lewis Chodosh MD, PhD, a cancer biologist at the University of Pennsylvania who works closely with BCRF grantee Barbara Weber, MD, is investigating changes in gene expression that occur in the breast during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Such changes may influence breast cancer risk. While earlier studies have shown that women who have their first child early in life and women who breastfeed their babies have a lower risk of breast cancer, the biological basis for these observations is not yet certain. Drs. Chodosh and Weber have found a number of genes whose activity is either permanently decreased or increased after pregnancy and lactation.
Michael Press, MD, PhD, of the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Southern California, is studying the interaction between the BRCA1 protein and hormone receptors in the breast, particularly progesterone, estrogen, and androgen receptors. When activated, these receptors stimulate cell division in the breast and are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Ramin Shiekhattar, PhD, a molecular geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wistar Institute, is working to understand the molecular machinery of which BRCA1 and BRCA2 are a part, with the goal of identifying other genes that may be involved in the development of breast cancer. By isolating complexes involving BRCA1 and BRCA2, he has recently identified a number of cancer-related genes that merit further investigation.
As researchers involved in the federally mandated Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project, Regina Santella, MD, and Ruby Senie, MD, of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, have investigated whether environmental contaminants, such as PCBs, cholordane and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, increase the risk of breast cancer among women living on Long Island. While the study recently found no link between environmental exposure to these contaminants and breast cancer, the researchers are now looking at other factors that may explain the increased risk, such as abnormalities in DNA-repair genes, as well as particular urinary, blood, and tumor markers.
We look forward to future conferences with eager anticipation.