that you are a molecular biologist who has spent the last 20
years in your lab, doggedly trying to figure out how chemicals
in the environment cause human cells to become cancerous. One
day a benefactor asks you what it would take to make real
progress toward that goal. You say, "Maybe about $5
million over a three-year period." And your benefactor
pretty much the way it happened for David Sherr, professor of
environmental health at Boston University and director of the
schoolís Superfund Research Program. His fairy godmother was
a little-known local group called Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer
Foundation, which last fall announced a $5 million grant to
Sherr and four other researchers to identify the environmental
causes of breast cancer and methods of preventing the disease.
Anbinder, founder and executive director of the foundation,
said money for that kind of research has to come from the
private sector because "the vast majority of government
research monies go to treatment and cure." But she
believes chemicals in the environment play a significant, if
not dominant, role in breast and other cancers. Identifying
them and putting pressure on policymakers to minimize exposure
to them could be the first step in preventing the disease.
have been trying for decades to demonstrate links between
cancer and the environment. In 2011 the Institute of Medicine,
an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, convened a
blue-ribbon panel that found no solid evidence, with the
"possible" exception of a few workplace chemicals
such as benzene.
a radioactive topic," said an official of the National
Cancer Institute who asked not to be identified. "Many
people feel strongly that chemicals in the environment are
causing breast cancer. But we couldnít find any
beCAUSE (so named because the co-founder owned an art gallery,
and one of the first projects saw artists donating a
percentage of sales to research) has only $350,000 of the
promised $5 million. "Weíll give it to them as we raise
it," said board chairman Bill Diercks.
said the first installment is enough for each of the five labs
to hire a dedicated researcher for a year. "Itís a
start," he said. "The critical element was to get
everyone working together, which gives you a synergistic
effect. We can share technology and resources and refine our
working on a protein known as the aryl hydrocarbon receptor,
which binds to environmental carcinogens and begins the
aberrant signaling that causes cells to divide out of control.
Two others members of the consortium ó Dr. David Seldin,
chief of hematology/oncology at Boston University, and Gail
Sonenshein, professor of biochemistry at Tufts University
School of Medicine in Boston ó also are cell-signal
researchers. The remaining members of the consortium are
Charlotte Kuperwasser, an expert on the biology of cancer stem
cells at Tufts, and Stefano Monti, a computational biologist
project is to develop a high-tech genomic platform that can
screen large numbers of chemicals quickly and economically for
their ability to affect cancer-related signaling pathways in
human cells. The consortium believes high-throughput screening
may be the only practical way to find out whether the more
than 80,000 untested chemicals on the market today cause
gold-standard test of carcinogenicity, the two-year rodent
bioassay, uses 800 animals and costs $2 million to $4 million
per compound. No wonder only about 1,500 chemicals have been
tested so far. But most epidemiological studies have failed to
identify environmental culprits, which Sherr says is not
critical exposures that result in breast cancer may have
happened 10 or 20 years before diagnosis Ö, in utero, or
even a generation or two generations ago," Sherr said.
"There is no realistic way for an epidemiologist to
quantify exposure to any one chemical over that time frame,
let alone the tens of thousands of chemicals and combinations
thereof. Itís simply impossible with current
studies also fail to take account of genetic predisposition,
or gene-environment interactions. "Letís assume that
1,000 chemicals of the 80,000 in the environment are
carcinogens," Sherr said, "but each for a small
subset of women with a particular genetic makeup. The overall
effect of all those chemicals would be significant. But
demonstrating that any one is a carcinogen by epidemiology
would be a daunting if not impossible task."
upshot is that even though environmental chemicals are
probably at least partly responsible for some portion of
breast cancer cases, proof is elusive.
assume that all these chemicals are innocent until proven
guilty," Sherr said, "and I think itís too
dangerous to do that. Do you want to grant those chemicals
constitutional rights and bet your life Ö ? Or do you want
to do the science and find out which suspects we really need
to look more closely at?"
National Institutes of Health are doing some of that science.
But Diercks said the institutes are "pretty careful about
which projects theyíre funding. They want to fund things
with more proven science and quicker returns."
funders and grantees are aware of the symbiosis of their
efforts. Raising money helps the scientists do their work. At
the same time, the scientific work helps the funders raise
we can generate some preliminary results," Monti said,
"it will increase visibility and make it more likely they
will succeed" in raising the rest of the $5 million.
course, even $5 million isnít likely to prevent breast
cancer. "But in the research funding world," Diercks
said, "thereís a very definite leveraging effect of
about 10 to 1. Once they publish results that get the
attention of the NIH, the hope is that our $5 million will get
them $50 million."
is just thankful for the chance to do the science. "This
work would never be funded by traditional funding
mechanisms," she said, "because itís too outside
the box. Ö You canít propose large-scale fishing projects,
because you canít predict the outcome before you do the
work. But thatís how important discoveries are made. You donít
go out saying, ĎI know thereís going to be America across
the water.í (Art beCAUSE) said, ĎWeíre going to provide
you the boat and money to explore whatís out there.í
may or may not be enough" to get to the next level of
funding, she said. "But weíll get as far as we can and
report our findings. As explorers, you donít wait until you
have enough money to complete the voyage. You put the boat in
the water and start paddling."