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International think tank on breast cancer prevention offers initial recommendations

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From before birth to puberty is a critical window for breast cancer prevention and a time when diet and exercise could have a significant positive impact, according to an international group of experts.

“Windows of opportunity for positively impacting the genes that control breast health are very important in terms of preventing breast cancer,” said Sophie Lelièvre, co-chair of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project and associate professor of basic medical sciences at Purdue University. “From fetal life to puberty is a very sensitive time for these genes and a time when introducing positive and protective environmental factors like limiting fatty and sugary foods and regularly exercising should be emphasized.”

The recommendations came from a think tank of 25 leaders in the field from eight countries who met in October in Saumur, France. The think tank was co-organized by Purdue, the French School of Public Health (EHESP) and the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and was part of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project. The project task force is preparing a manuscript detailing its recommendations for prevention and for the future of international primary prevention research.

The group also highlighted the need to measure the psychological aspect of prevention approaches, she said.

“Primary prevention of chronic diseases is a relatively new facet of health care and it involves working with healthy patients with no clinical signs of the disease,” said Lelièvre, who also is the leader of the breast cancer discovery group at the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. “As scientists develop new ways to assess and decrease breast cancer risk, it is essential to measure the psychological impact of these procedures.”

Additional research recommendations of the think tank included a need for prevention research to be done in context, for example studying the communication of cells in their natural tissue structure and accounting for the cultural context of population studies; working internationally and including cross-cultural collaboration to benefit all countries; and developing a research hub to easily share information between researchers in different countries, she said.

The goal of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project is to develop new methods to assess breast cancer risk for all women and to design sustainable prevention strategies. The project brings 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 and disease prevention.

The project, in which the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer are also involved, allows scientists to study worldwide diversity in breast cancer rates, dietary patterns and cultural contexts. The project is initially focusing on the United States, Ghana, France, Japan, Uruguay and Lebanon.

“We hope that by educating people about the different factors that influence the genes behind breast cancer those at-risk can take steps to reduce their chances of having the disease,” she said. “In addition to improving the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, it is important to discover ways to prevent the disease. In the end, no treatment compares to avoiding the disease entirely.”

Connie Weaver, a distinguished professor and head of the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue, co-chaired the think tank with Lelièvre. The two also described the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition efforts and accomplishments in a paper recently published in Nutrition Reviews as a special article titled “Global Nutrition Research: Nutrition and Breast Cancer Prevention as a Model.”

Purdue sponsors of the think tank included the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, The Office of the Provost and the Department of Nutrition Science. The Oncological Sciences Center and the Office of Vice President for Research also provided logistic support. Additional information is available at Purdue.edu/breastcancer.

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