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Your Environment. Your Health.

Impact of Environmental Metal/Metalloid Exposures on Mammographic Breast Density, a Marker of Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer & the Environment Research Program

Georgetown University
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Principal Investigators:
Marybeth Martin, Ph.D.
Celia Byrne, Ph.D.

NIEHS Grant: U01ES026132

Other Community and Academic Partners:
Earth Conservation Corps
Groundwork Anacostia River DC
Capital Breast Care Center

Residents in medically underserved areas of Washington, D.C. have expressed the concern that the high incidence of cancer in their community is due to contaminants in their food and water, including metals. Results from the research team and others show that environmentally relevant amounts of specific metals and metalloids, referred to as metalloestrogens, activate estrogen receptor-alpha (ERα) in vitro and in vivo through a high affinity interaction with the ligand binding domain (LBD) of the receptor. These metals and metalloids fall into two separate subclasses, bivalent cations and oxyanions. New results from their laboratory suggest that metalloestrogens also activate progesterone receptor-B (PR-B). The ability to activate ERα, and potentially PR-B, suggests that environmental exposure to metals and metalloids with estrogen- and progestin-like activity may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

In response to the concerns of the community, researchers are addressing the question of whether exposure to metals and metalloids increases the risk of developing breast cancer by testing the hypothesis that higher lifetime environmental exposure to metals and metalloids with estrogen- and progesterone-like activity is associated with higher mammographic density in women during the menopausal transition or with the involution of the mammary gland and the decline in mammographic breast density during this period. Researchers are determining whether metals and metalloids mimic the effects of estrogens and progestin on mammary gland morphology, stem and progenitor cells and gene expression in a menopausal animal model and defining the mechanisms by which metals and metalloids activate PR-B in in vitro assays.

The research team is also determining whether environmental exposure to metallohormones is associated with changes in breast density through the menopausal transition and defining the mechanism by which metals and metalloids alter breast density. Specifically, they are establishing whether: 1) higher metallohormone levels are associated with increased mammographic density; 2) higher metallohormone levels are associated with maintenance of higher breast density through the menopausal transition; and 3) polymorphisms in the calcium pathway are associated with increased mammographic breast density, indicating the mechanism through which bivalent cationic metallohormones increase risk.

The research team continues to engage with community partners to get their input, to help collect data, and to translate and communicate the scientific findings to the community.

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