International team launches 20-year breast cancer, nutrition project

September 30, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Experts know nutrition is a common link in breast cancer, and a team led by Purdue University researchers is kicking off a 20-year, multi-nation study to learn more about the role diet can play to prevent this disease.

"What we are specifically looking at is how the disease and prevention are related to women's heritage and environment," said Sophie Lelièvre (pronounced Le-LEE-YEA-vre), associate professor of basic medical sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine, who also is leader of the Breast Cancer Discovery Group at the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. "Better understanding how these factors affect the disease's gene expression, also known as epigenetics, will put us closer to understanding why breast cancer cases are rising at different rates throughout the world. Of particular concern is the rapid rise in low- and middle-income countries where aggressive forms of the disease are seen in young women."

The International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project, which is partnering with the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, will begin by focusing on the United States, France, Japan, Ghana, Uruguay, Lebanon and Canada. Each country will have a dedicated research team, and the project will have a number of milestones at several-year intervals. This effort will allow scientists to study worldwide diversity in breast cancer rates, dietary patterns and cultural background.

"Women are told to eat right and eat healthy, but what does that exactly mean? The reality is that there are many unknowns about how nutrition relates to breast cancer prevention and recurrence," said Connie Weaver, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition. "Up until now, the link between diet and risk of breast cancer has not been studied in populations that encompass the diversity of diet and breast cancer incidence observed around the world. What we learn in one corner of the world and another corner, plus another corner, can really help us learn how to prevent the disease because we will identify common threads as well as important peculiarities all in one global study. Moreover we will get synergism from interacting with experts from these different parts of the world."

Globally, breast cancer is ranked second in terms of incidence after lung cancer, and breast cancer is usually the number one cause of mortality of all cancers in women, Lelièvre said. Developing countries also are reporting more breast cancer cases than ever.

"We believe these increases are sincere and not solely the result of improved screening and detection, or even a country's improved ability to report such statistics," Lelièvre said. "Experts believe we are on the verge of an international breast cancer epidemic, and the World Health Organization labeled cancer prevention an urgent priority. But this form of cancer is not a communicable disease, so it does not attract as much attention as diseases such as influenza or tuberculosis when it comes to primary prevention because it cannot spread from one person to another. However, it is not acceptable to let this disease progress every where insidiously."

This research project will bring together experts in nutrition, basic medical sciences, statistics, cancer epidemiology, communication, public policy, economics, health law, anthropology and medicine to study a variety of factors such as how cellular mechanisms in breast cancer development link to diet, as well as the role public policy plays in a population's available food source.

"If people were asked which country has one of the highest incidence of breast cancer, the answer, Uruguay, might surprise them," said Jakob Jensen, a Purdue assistant professor of health communication and member of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project. "Why is it Uruguay? We hypothesize that it might be the changing diet patterns in this small, but prospering country. It is an example of how today's transnational economies have people eating more global cuisine, which is often mass produced and perhaps lower quality.

"And we don't believe it is just one component. For example, it may be how the food is prepared that is linked to the disease. There are many components, and the breadth and depth of this well-coordinated, international project will give us a chance to understand the complicated formula behind breast cancer."

The project will launch on Oct. 18 and 19 at Purdue during the Symposium on Breast Cancer Prevention: Nutrition, Communication and Public Policy. The event is chaired by Lelièvre and Weaver.

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, 

Sources:  Sophie Lelièvre, 765-496-7793,  

                  Connie Weaver, 765-494-8231,

                  Jakob Jensen, 765-494-7781,

Related news release:
Breast cancer prevention, nutrition focus of research symposium