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Oct. 9, 2015

$4.15M grant explores how diet and sunscreen may increase breast cancer risk

Two Michigan State University researchers have been awarded a five-year, $4.15 million grant to examine how a high-fat diet interacts with a common chemical found in sunscreen and what effect it has on breast cancer risk.

“This research could affect many women as diets high in fat are widespread and sunscreens with certain chemicals are routinely promoted as protection against skin cancer,” said Richard Schwartz, a microbiology and molecular genetics professor and associate dean in the College of Natural Science.

Schwartz, along with Sandra Haslam, a professor of physiology in the College of Human Medicine, will lead the preclinical study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, that will investigate the chemical BP-3, or Benzophenone-3, which is often found in sunscreens and is suspected to mimic the female sex hormone estrogen.

Preliminary data has shown that BP-3 acts similarly to estrogen in the uterus and this suggests that it may do the same in the breast. Schwartz said that estrogen can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and both BP-3 and a high-fat diet could enhance this effect.

“We are particularly interested in identifying how factors such as diet and chemical exposures impact breast cancer risk at different ages, from puberty to adulthood, and developing effective prevention strategies,” Haslam said.

Both researchers said that some of the prevention strategies could be as simple as modifying one’s diet or using sunscreens with alternative ingredients such as zinc or Para-aminobenzoic acid, or PABA.

“We still don’t know the definitive effects of BP-3 on breast cancer, but we do have evidence from earlier work that an extreme high-fat, ‘Western’ diet may promote breast cancer susceptibility,” Schwartz said. “This study should help give us more answers.”

Schwartz and Haslam will search for any predictive markers that suggest an increase in breast cancer risk and then share the results of their study with other researchers at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, researchers there are involved in a long-term, separate study that is also examining the links between a high-fat diet, sunscreen use and breast cancer in a population of young women.

To further collaborative efforts between colleges at MSU, Kami Silk, a communications professor and associate dean in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, will look at ways to develop effective health messaging to younger audiences based on the MSU research.