New Consortium to Study Environmental Causes of Breast Cancer

Sherr to lead research involving labs at BU and Tufts

A new consortium led by David Sherr will try to find carcinogens among the 84,000 chemicals in consumer products. Photo by Cydney Scott

Cancer researcher David Sherr is gunning for a disease that has upended his life. His wife died from multiple myeloma 15 years ago.

So when the Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit supporting research into the environmental causes of breast cancer, approached him for ideas to accelerate progress, Sherr, a Boston University School of Public Health (SPH) professor of environmental health, was ready.

“Dr. Sherr has long been a friend of ours and a supporter,” says Eleanor Anbinder (SED’62), who cofounded the foundation with Joyce Creiger (CAS’62) in 2001. “One day, I said to him, ‘How can we speed this research up?’” Sherr suggested a four-laboratory collaboration, two from Tufts and two from BU: his own, which researches the mechanisms through which environmental chemicals suppress the immune system, among other topics, and the lab of Stefano Monti, a BU School of Medicine associate professor of computational biomedicine, who also has an appointment at SPH. The two from Tufts are led by Gail E. Sonenshein, a Tufts professor of developmental, molecular, and chemical biology, and Charlotte Kuperwasser, an associate professor of developmental, molecular, and chemical biology.

“The rest,” Anbinder says, “is history.”

Art beCAUSE has given a three-year, $5 million grant to the new Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Research Consortium and is hoping to attract matching grants from other donors. The idea for such a multilab consortium, says Sherr, consortium director, “was something I stole from lots of literature about team science. It’s much harder to do science by yourself. It has to be team science if you really want to get somewhere.”

One of every eight American women gets breast cancer, and 40,000 a year die from it, says Sherr. He shared his hopes for the consortium with BU Research.

BU Research: Why this consortium?

Sherr: The idea is to build evidence that the environment really is contributing majorly to breast cancer. Gail Sonenshein and Charlotte Kuperwasser are major breast cancer researchers.

Do we know that environmental factors can cause breast cancer?

There’s always an argument going on in the literature about to what extent the environment plays a role. The estimates are that anywhere from 33 to 85 percent of cancers are influenced in some way by environmental chemicals. We can attribute about 10 percent of cancers to inheritance of bad genes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other genes we haven’t found yet, but it’s becoming less and less likely. Of the other 90 percent, some of them might be just random and you can’t do anything about it, but I think more than half are due to some environmental exposure.

How many chemicals do you think are registered for use in consumer products by the Environmental Protection Agency? About 84,000. About 2 percent have been tested to see if they are carcinogens. Of those 2 percent, about 30 percent are carcinogens. Say the overall carcinogen rate is 0.5 percent. That’s about 400 carcinogens that we’re exposed to all the time.

Why not test the rest?

That’s exactly what Stefano Monti is doing, trying to find a very rapid, economical protocol to screen thousands of chemicals at once to get certain characteristics in a short time. Those characteristics go into a database, and then he identifies which set of characteristics is common to carcinogens and which is common to everything else that’s not carcinogenic. He thinks he’ll be able to identify a profile of a carcinogen.

Part of the problem is actually getting the chemicals to test. It’s taken us two years to collect 300 of them. And there’s an added problem, which is that one might not be a carcinogen and another might not be a carcinogen, but together they might be carcinogenic.

What else might the consortium research?

Gail Sonenshein has developed ways to detect cancer that may be growing anywhere by looking in blood for genetic pieces of the cancer. This is a very sensitive mechanism for detecting a cancer. She thinks that using this technique, she can determine whether somebody’s been exposed to something carcinogenic—the environmental factor. If Gail can come up with a way to test somebody’s blood to be able to say, ‘You were exposed to these five chemicals recently, and they’ve caused this change,’ that could be used by epidemiologists to say your disease might be caused by these chemicals.

Will we find therapies or a cure in our lifetime?

I don’t see that happening, but I’m not sure it’s because of the science. It’s the economics of developing therapeutics. The other side is, there are 84,000 chemicals, and we all want to have a new car with a new car smell and we all want to sit in chairs that are flame-retardant. We’re all passively agreeing that we want companies to make these chemicals; we all use Tupperware and all that stuff. So then it becomes an economic issue, to go after the chemical companies that could substitute something that’s not carcinogenic. That’s daunting.

A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.

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