Women's College Research Institute

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Intriguing discovery gives women at high risk for breast cancer new hope

Fall 2011

Women's College Research Institute's Familial Breast Cancer Research Unit has published a fascinating study in the International Journal of Cancer showing that Polish women with BRCA1 genetic mutations – known to radically increase breast cancer risk – have a 46 per cent lower annual risk of getting breast cancer, compared to North American women.

"We've learned that, for women in Poland with the same mutation, the annual risk of developing breast cancer is just under half of the risk in North America," says Dr. Steven Narod, senior scientist at Women's College Research Institute and professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"Such a large difference leads us to suspect that environmental and dietary factors are involved," says Narod.

Dr. Joanne Kotsopoulos, scientist at Women's College Research Institute and assistant professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is leading the next phase of the study – an analysis of the women's blood nutrient levels.

"We hope to identify some difference in blood nutrient levels of the Polish women that correlates with their lower risk," says Kotsopoulos. "That would help us pinpoint a possible nutritional cause."

Over the course of their lives, women in Ontario with a BRCA1 mutation have a 72 per cent risk of breast cancer.

"Currently, if women have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, their best options to prevent cancer are prophylactic surgeries like mastectomy and removal of the ovaries," says Kotsopoulos.

"Not every woman is going to choose surgery," says Kotsopoulos, "particularly women who discover their mutations at a very young age. We want to give women more options to reduce their risk, and less invasive options than surgery."

Read International Journal of Cancer article

Lubinski J, Huzarski T, Byrski T, Lynch HT, Cybulski C, Ghadirian P, Stawicka M, Foulkes WD, Kilar E, Kim-Sing C, Neuhausen SL, Tung N, Armel S, Gilchrist D, Ainsworth P, Sweet K, Gronwald J, Eisen A, Gorski B, Sun P, Narod SA. The Risk of Breast Cancer in Women with a BRCA1 Mutation from North America and Poland. International Journal of Cancer. 2011 Aug 29 (Epub ahead of Print)


Why Poland?

Dr. Steven Narod co-discovered the BRCA2 gene that, when mutated, radically increases breast and ovarian cancer risk.

Today, Narod partners with 70 centres worldwide – including Poland's Pomeranian Medical University, a collaboration that has published nearly 100 peer-reviewed articles on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The combined size of the teams' databases provided an opportunity to compare risk in a large sample of women with BRCA1 mutations.The data suggests that diet may lower breast cancer risk.

"Polish people eat a lot of cabbage, which is high in diindolylmethane," says Dr. Joanne Kotsopoulos, Women's College scientist and expert in modifiable risk factors for breast cancer.

"DIM appears to make mutated BRCA1/2 genes work properly to protect against cancer. In a separate study, we're already examining the impact of DIM on BRCA1/2 expression."



Dr. Narod  

 In October, Dr. Steven Narod was awarded an honourary doctorate by the Pomeranian Medical University, recognizing his long-standing and influential contribution to hereditary breast cancer research, specifically through his collaboration with the university's International Hereditary Cancer Center.






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