Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Medical Center Named One of Six New NIH Breast Cancer Research Centers

October 28, 2015

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Medical Center together are one of six new sites being launched by the National Institutes of Health’s Breast Cancer and Environment Research Program (BCERP). This latest phase of the NIH program will focus on prevention and add to the growing knowledge of environmental and genetic factors that may influence breast cancer risk across the lifespan.

The Columbia Mailman School and Columbia University Medical Center site is led by Mary Beth Terry, PhD, professor of Epidemiology, and Rachel Miller, MD, professor of Medicine (Pediatrics) and Environmental Health Sciences. Frederica Perera, DrPH, PhD, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) cohort also will play a key role in advancing the research at the new program.

The Columbia researchers will partner across scientific disciplines, involve the community in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx and expand the study of risk factors that precede breast cancer, such as breast density in mothers and their adolescent daughters. This new direction reflects recommendations made by the congressionally mandated Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee in 2013, including prioritizing prevention, involving transdisciplinary research teams, engaging public stakeholders, collaborating across federal agencies, and communicating the science to the public.

The announcement by NIH noted that the focus on minority and socio-economically disadvantaged women is an important step in addressing disparities in breast cancer outcomes. Although African-American women are diagnosed with breast cancer less often than white women, more aggressive cancers and breast cancer deaths are more common among African-American women. Another new direction for the program is research on the role of breast density as a possible intermediate risk factor for breast cancer.

Dr. Terry has over 15 years of experience leading breast cancer studies on the role that genetics, epigenetics, and other biomarkers play in modifying the effects of environmental exposures. She currently leads four other NIH grants that focus on cancer risk within families and has authored or co-authored over 200 scientific publications. Dr. Miller concentrates her research on the mechanisms of environmental pollutants on multiple complex diseases. Her focus here includes the impact of air pollution exposure, and inhaled polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) specifically, on epigenetic changes in genes in the mouse breast tissue and blood that may be important to breast cancer risk.

“PAH are widespread in the U.S. and have been associated with breast cancer risk. We hypothesize that the effect on breast tissue changes will be higher for girls and women exposed to PAH during key windows of breast susceptibility such as the prenatal and pregnancy periods, respectively, says Dr. Terry. Dr. Miller adds, “The effect PAH exposure may have on the grand offspring – a relevant and high impact question for understanding persistent effects of the environmental through epigenetic signatures – will be tested in our center and the results may forecast potential significant effects far into the future.”

 “These priorities reflect our continued commitment to breast cancer prevention,” noted Caroline Dilworth, PhD, BCERP program lead at NIEHS. “Our goal is to build on the high quality science we’ve been funding for more than a decade, while also being responsive to the expert recommendations of the IBCERCC report.”

The six BCERP projects, plus a new coordinating center promoting cross-project collaboration, are jointly funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute Grant Numbers: U01ES026130, U01ES026137, U01ES026122, U01ES026132, U01ES026119, U01ES026140, U01ES026127.

About Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master’s and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit