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Genes and the Environment: A Code for Breast Cancer Development

Amy Trentham-Dietz, PhDMadison, Wisconsin - In each person's genetic code is a set of possibilities about how life will play out. Some will get knee pain; others will have low stomach acid. And some will get cancer.


It has been known for some time that there are specific markers in DNA code that predict this possibility, with breast cancer markers being the most commonly recognized in the popular consciousness.


Yet, there are many who do not have any of these markers in their genetic makeup but still develop breast cancer, and UW Carbone Cancer Center scientists want to know why. In partnership through a grant from the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP), Michael Gould, PhD, Amy Trentham-Dietz, PhD, and their associates at the UW Carbone Cancer Center have begun to examine the link between when the human body interprets genetic code and the development of breast cancer.


"Breast cancer takes many years to develop, and we know that hormones are important in the process," says Trentham-Dietz, an Associate Professor of Population Health Sciences. "There are certain times in a woman's life when she is particularly at risk for changes that increase her chances of developing breast cancer."


Trentham-Dietz and Gould, professor of oncology at the UW McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, are examining milestones in a woman's life when hormones are extra-active – in the womb, in the course of puberty, through childbearing, and during menopause - to determine if any of these "windows of susceptibility" contribute to breast cancer development. These "windows" are important since they coincide with dramatic changes in hormone levels in the body.


Michael Gould, PhD"Breast cancer, like many other cancers, is complicated because many genes are at work," says Trentham-Dietz. "The presence of certain factors does not necessarily lead to cancer itself, but just increases the chances that it will develop."


Trentham-Dietz has been studying menstrual and reproductive factors like puberty, pregnancy and menopause in relation to breast cancer risk for several years. Her partnership with Gould, whose expertise lies in breast cancer genetics, will examine the mechanisms of how genes and environmental factors interact to contribute to breast cancer risk.


An essential aspect of the study involves comparing the genes of more than 7,000 Wisconsin women to identify how differences might impact cancer incidences. Partnering with local stakeholders, the team will then map out which environmental factors could be triggers.


"Our breast cancer advocates and community partners are essential for helping us to know which environmental factors are most important," says Trentham-Dietz. "For example, we know that women are concerned about the potential harmful effects of chemicals in plastics. Our community partners—including the Komen Foundation, the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition, the Wisconsin Cancer Council, the Breast Cancer Task Force, and the UW-Milwaukee Institute for Urban Health Partnerships – are indispensable in helping us convey the results of our studies in understandable language, and disseminating those results to difficult-to-reach audiences."


Gould and Trentham-Dietz will showcase progress on their project at the 10th Annual BCERP meeting, on November 7-8 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison. BCERP is a consortium of grantees from across the nation funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.


Says Trentham-Dietz, "Building a national network studying cancer genetics via the prism of windows of susceptibility will help us understand both the human body and the disease that much better."


This meeting is free and open to the public but registration is required. Register online at

Date Published: 09/27/2013

News tag(s):  cancerresearch

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Genes and the Environment: A Code for Breast Cancer Development

Last updated: 08/03/2015
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