As the president and medical director of our research foundation, my job is to think about innovative ways to study breast cancer, and to get the funding we need to make these studies happen. We apply for government and foundation grants that will allow us to conduct research at the Foundation as well as collaborate with scientists at other institutions. It is always hard to get funding for new ideas, so when were successful I couldn’t be happier

That’s why I’m incredibly excited to let you know that the Foundation has just received two Avon grants. (Thank you to all you Avon walkers who make this possible!) Both grants address the question on how early pregnancy reduces the risk of breast cancer. The first grant, The Effect of Previous Pregnancy on the Physiology of the Breast Ducts, will be the first to explore what the non-breastfeeding breast does. The second grant, Analysis of Parity-Induced Protection in Human Breast and Serum, will allow the Foundation to collaborate with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, in Houston, to study whether pregnancy causes permanent molecular changes in breast tissue.

Although it is well known that an early first pregnancy decreases future breast cancer risk, we really don’t know why. The Avon Foundation put the challenge out to researchers to try to come up with an explanation. Our hypothesis is that it might be due to a permanent change in the function of the milk ducts.

The breast is the only female organ that doesn’t develop until puberty. But even then it is not functional—capable of making milk from blood—until a woman has been through a full-term pregnancy. We also know that the breast ducts can contain and absorb a wide array of chemicals. In fact, studies have found nicotine, pesticides, and other carcinogens in breast fluid. We think that there may be a permanent change in the permeability of the breast ducts that occurs with the first pregnancy that helps keep carcinogens from getting into the ductal fluid. And the study we are going to conduct is designed to test this possibility.

We already have data on the extent to which caffeine and cimetidine (an over the counter heartburn drug) get into breast milk during lactation. The Foundation proposed to test whether the same levels of absorption occurs in women who are not breast-feeding. To do this, we will enroll five women who have never been pregnant and five women who have had children more than four years. We will then take samples of their blood and nipple aspirate fluid, which will allow us to see if there are differences between the two groups in how much of the drug their body absorbs into the breast.

The women in this study will also have a small amount of a safe sugar alcohol put into a breast duct. This will allow us to study whether there are differences between the two groups in how much of the substance is absorbed through the duct into the blood. Since this study will involve taking blood and fluid samples over 12 hours we will offer each participant a $100 stipend for her trouble. Dr. Mills, the Foundation’s Clinical Research Director, and I plan to be the first subjects to try it out!

I am very excited about this study because it will provide us with more information than has ever before been available about how the breast ducts operate before, during, and after pregnancy.

The study we are conducting in collaboration with researchers at Texas Tech will look for permanent molecular changes in breast tissue brought on by the first pregnancy. For this study, the Foundation will enroll 22 women who gave birth before 25 or who had their first child after age 35. (Women must be at least five years beyond their last pregnancy). It will also enroll 22 women under 25 and over 35 who have never given birth. All of the women will give a blood sample. Each woman will also give a breast tissue sample (obtained through a needle biopsy). The women in this study will also receive a $100 stipend.

The tissue and blood will be collected at the Foundation and then sent to Texas Tech, where researchers will conduct complex analyses of genes and proteins in the blood and tissue. The aim of this study is to find genes and proteins that change with the first full pregnancy and then to figure out how we might get the same effect without the pregnancy.

For years, I’ve dreamed about conducting studies like these that will begin providing us with the answers we need to understand the mechanisms that help reduce breast cancer risk. Knowing that a large organization like the Avon Foundation not only recognizes the importance of this work but has decided to generously fund these two studies is both gratifying and inspiring.

If you live in the Los Angeles area and are interested in enrolling in one of these groundbreaking studies, please contact us at research@dslrf.org. If you’re not in the Los Angeles area but want to help ensure that we are able to continue to conduct the research needed to end this disease, please contribute to the Foundation today.

We are at the beginning of the end of breast cancer. Your support can—and will—make a difference!

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