Researchers track clues in normal breast tissue and in breast milk

‘Lives will be saved’: Predicting breast cancer before it develops

Researchers track clues in normal breast tissue and in breast milk

December 18, 2018

Breast cancer begins with one lethal rogue cell. Cancerous cells in the breast then grow out of control in a mind-boggling process that researchers worldwide have yet to fully understand, despite years of study and billions of dollars in funding.  At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researchers in many areas, backed by government organizations and private foundations, are attacking breast cancer on multiple fronts. They are investigating environmental toxins and breast milk, leading large epidemiological studies, creating new treatments, identifying individuals likely to get breast cancer, and advocating for changes in chemical testing and regulation. 


UMass Amherst scientists work in the forefront of research into breast cancer prevention and causes. This investigative focus is not the norm; most breast cancer funding supports research into early detection and treatment rather than prevention and causes. Three years ago, however, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the largest funder of cancer research in the U.S., made prevention research a higher priority. Now, 5 percent of the NCI’s budget is allocated to grants for breast cancer prevention. UMass Amherst received $3.5 million as one of six institutions to receive funding from a breast cancer research program cofunded by the NCI and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 

Profiled here are five UMass Amherst researchers who are targeting breast cancer. 

Their work is vitally important to women, as 12 percent are predicted to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. This research gives hope to the 268,670 women and men who are expected to learn they have breast cancer this year and it will help lower the 41,400 annual breast cancer deaths. 

D. Joseph Jerry


Cells of information 

The work of UMass cancer researchers is furthered by a remarkable resource that provides opportunities to study and experiment with live cells, the Rays of Hope Breast Research Patient Registry. More than 1,000 women with and without breast cancer have joined the registry, housed at the nonprofit Pioneer Valley Life Science Institute (PVLSI), in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here, patients’ cells are kept alive in liquid nitrogen tanks, placed in petri dishes stored in an incubator maintained at body temperature, replicated, and used in real-life experiments. The patient registry is rich in information: besides the cells, it includes breast tissue samples, health and demographic information, and permission to contact patients in the future.   

UMass cancer biologist D. Joseph Jerry cofounded the registry with Grace Makari-Judson of Baystate Medical Center. He and other researchers, both at UMass and elsewhere, are using this trove of information to make strides in understanding breast cancer. “I don’t know anyone who has the breadth of normal breast cells that we have,” says Jerry. “The tissue and cell resources create the opportunity to learn what makes each of us different and why some women get breast cancer and others do not.”  

Jerry, who is science director of the PVLSI and also a professor of veterinary and animal sciences at UMass, says he is fortunate to be part of the larger collaboration between clinicians, scientists, and patients. The PVLSI, established in 2002, is a nonprofit partnership between UMass Amherst and Baystate Medical Center, the largest hospital in western Massachusetts. In 2011, the Rays of Hope Center for Breast Cancer Research was founded to support advocacy for research in western Massachusetts and develop the Breast Research Patient Registry.  

The live cells in the registry demonstrate cellular activities that can reveal sensitivities to environmental chemicals in a subset of women. They also may reveal opportunities for clinical therapies, explains Jerry. “We’re hoping to use these cells to then more capably say, yes, this is the group of people who are most likely to respond to a particular therapy,” he says.   

Jerry has been investigating why cells mutate and become cancerous in some people as well as why mutations occur but produce no tumors in other individuals. His work builds on research on the TP53 tumor suppressor gene, a gene that is commonly mutated in breast cancers. In mouse models, he found that the gene is not uniform in its behavior, causing some strains of mice to develop breast cancer while others escape the disease. This reveals that cancer is more than a single mutation; understanding the context of mutation will bring more insight into the causes of breast cancer. “We have not reached that goal of the cure we have been dreaming about, but we have made real steps toward it and we keep hoping that tomorrow will bring the fundamental change,” says Jerry. 

Kathleen Arcaro


Finding clues in breast milk 

When Kathleen F. Arcaro, professor of veterinary and animal science, decided to study breast milk to see if she could learn about the origins of breast cancer and how to more accurately predict who will get the disease, she found little enthusiasm for the new approach. “Nobody thought it was a good idea, especially the funding agencies,” says Arcaro. 

Undaunted, Arcaro initiated research in 2004 by collecting breast milk from lactating women in the UMass Amherst community and studying cells in the milk. She soon discovered that these cells could reveal breast cancer risk. Since she launched her quest to study breast milk, Arcaro, a faculty member since 2001 with a lab in the Life Science Laboratories building, has won millions of dollars in grants and expanded the collection of breast milk from Amherst area women to include women with more geographic and racial diversity. Women from all across the country have donated breast milk samples. 

Focusing on DNA and genes that can trigger the growth of cancer cells, Arcaro showed that lactating breasts hold valuable information about risk and the beginning of breast cancer. She has examined which genes may trigger cancer. “I wouldn’t say at this point that I have shown that I can detect breast cancer, but I am getting closer,” says Arcaro. It is an important finding, since the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer are past child-bearing age. If women at risk can be identified very early, lives will be saved.  

At the heart of Arcaro’s research is DNA methylation, a mechanism that can modify the turning on and off of genes. Arcaro is investigating the extent to which the pattern of DNA methylation that relates to inflammation and cancer can be changed with a diet of fruits and vegetables. Women in the study who were given fresh produce to add to their diet showed an increase of a hormone associated with low risk for breast cancer. She envisions a future where breast milk will be tested for cancer risk as simply and routinely as newborns are screened for metabolic diseases through a heel-prick blood test. 

Share this story: