Susan G. Komen: Piecing Together the Puzzle of Breast Cancer Prevention

Issue 28, Winter/Spring 2016

With 1 in 8 women in the U.S. likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer within her lifetime and more than 240,000 new cases of breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S. this year alone, many argue that preventing this disease is the only way we will ever conquer it, while others wonder whether breast cancer can be prevented.

Unfortunately, right now there isn’t one surefire way to prevent breast cancer, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. As a leading breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen has invested more than $52 million in over 85 research grants, including more than 20 clinical trials focused on discovering ways to keep breast cancer from ever happening. 

Vaccines are usually thought of as the first line of defense in preventing a disease, especially those caused by infections. But, since breast cancer isn’t caused by an infection, some researchers – like Komen Scholar, Dr. Keith Knutson of the Mayo Clinic – are using the vaccine concept to try to target other potential drivers of breast cancer, like proteins that appear only on cancer cells. 

The hope is that women at high risk can receive a vaccine that will stimulate their own immune system to find these proteins and destroy cancer cells before they become invasive.

Another Scholar, Dr. Nora Disis of the University of Washington, is investigating whether vaccines can block obesity-related inflammation, with the ultimate goal of reducing the incidence of breast cancer in obese women.

Other exciting possibilities focus on dietary approaches – including the Komen-funded Zumba Global Research Grant for Breast Cancer Prevention at the University of Kansas Medical Research Institute.  Hoping to find a new method for breast cancer prevention in high-risk women, Dr. Carol Fabian and her team are studying a cheap and readily accessible plant-based product, lignin, found in flaxseed, called SDG (secoisolariciniresinol diglycoside).

So far, the team has shown that an amount of SDG equivalent to one flaxseed muffin per day inhibits the abnormal growth of breast cells that precedes the development of breast cancer in mice.  In other words, SDG helped prevent the development of breast cancer in mice.1 This team is currently completing a clinical trial in high-risk women that holds great promise, especially for those who cannot afford expensive medications or who are limited by inadequate healthcare infrastructures, such is often the case in rural areas in the United States and around the world in developing countries.

In an effort to better understand the scientific “landscape” of research into breast cancer prevention, Komen commissioned the Institute of Medicine’s foundational report, Breast Cancer and the Environment – A Life Course Approach, to move us toward greater opportunities for breast cancer prevention. That report revealed that there were insufficient data in a number of areas and that more research was needed.

In response, Komen offered Environmental Challenge Grants in FY13. These grants focused on: the impact of radiation exposure on breast cancer development and in treatment; the impact of pollutants in areas where cancer rates are disproportionately high; the impact of air pollution on breast cancer development; and the role of synthetic chemicals called phthalates. Through these grants, we hope to move beyond theories to a solid base of scientific evidence to understand the specific role of environmental exposures and breast cancer development.

All of these projects are helping to lay the groundwork for someday being able to truly prevent breast cancer, but it will require a deeper understanding of all aspects of prevention – everything from environmental causes to diet, exercise, alcohol, chemicals and more – to get us to that point.

Fortunately, our organization is well versed in both patience and perseverance. We have made significant advances in our understanding of risk, lifestyle factors and genetics, but breakthroughs happen over time, not overnight. We intend to follow through on the promise that founded our organization – to end breast cancer forever – and will continue to invest in innovative prevention research that will someday help make this goal a reality.

Victoria Wolodzko

Victoria Wolodzko
VP Research and Community Health Programs Operations
Susan G. Komen


1 Delman, Devora M et al. "Effects of Flaxseed Lignan Secoisolariciresinol Diglucosideon Preneoplastic Biomarkers of Cancer Progression in a Model of Simultaneous Breast and Ovarian Cancer Development." Nutrition and cancer 67.5 (2015): 857-864.