Study to Examine Whether Cancer Risk From In Utero Environmental Exposures Can Be Reversed

New research seeks answers about the role of diet in pregnancy to reduce the risk of breast cancer in daughters not yet born.
April 20, 2010
Donato Romagnolo
Donato Romagnolo
Ornella Selmin
Ornella Selmin

Might a diet that includes grapes and berries aid a pregnant mother in preventing her unborn daughter from developing breast cancer later in life?

Two researchers at the University of Arizona have a three-year, $563,000 grant from the Department of Defense to conduct an initial investigation of how exposure to a group of environmental pollutants, called dioxins, are related to breast cancer. Their research may shed light on whether compounds found in certain foods can protect against damage caused by dioxin exposure, even in children who have not been born.

Donato Romagnolo, a professor in the UA nutritional sciences department, is leading the study. Romagnolo has been researching breast cancer development and the effects of diet and dioxins for more than 10 years. Ornella Selmin, an associate research scientist in the department, is the co-investigator. Nutritional sciences is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the UA.

Humans are exposed to a complex mixture of toxins through diet and environmental pollution that numerous studies have linked to an increase in breast cancer. This mixture includes dioxin-like compounds found in cooked meat, dairy products, cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

Two new concepts are being tested in this study. One is whether environmental exposure can affect individuals while still in utero through maternal diet and environmental pollution. The second is whether these effects can be reversed by supplementing the mother's diet with anti carcinogens contained in foods such as grapes and berries.

"This proposal will study one of the mechanisms used by dioxins to induce breast cancer," Romagnolo said. "The hypothesis tested is that in utero exposure to dioxin can suppress (anti-tumor) genes and induce breast cancer in female offspring."

Unlike genetic mutations, where people have a predisposition to develop breast cancer, environmental effects may be reversible and represent viable targets for dietary intervention."

The ammunition researchers will use to test for this reversal is resveratrol, a natural compound found in grapes, wine, berries, peanuts and soy. Human studies have shown an inverse relationship between risk of breast cancer and high intake of grapes (but not wine).

Romagnolo said there appears to be a "unique connection between resveratrol and dioxin" and said the study will test the possibility of preventing the negative effects of dioxins on breast cancer development of female animals by adding resveratrol in the maternal diet.

Three previous studies show that resveratrol reduced the number of tumors in skin cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer induced by agents similar to dioxin. In utero exposure to dioxin increases tumor susceptibility in experimental animals.

"What we don't yet know is whether we can prevent breast cancer using resveratrol," he said.

Funding for the study comes from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program with additional support from the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission and Susan G. Komen for the Cure.