HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Two researchers at Marshall University have been awarded federal funds totaling more than $1 million to assess the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on breast cancer development.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Breast Cancer Research Program has awarded Dr. Elaine Hardman, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, and Dr. Philippe Georgel, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, competitive grants of $460,249 and $320,750, respectively. Hardman and Georgel received two of only 18 grants awarded nationwide through the program.
Over the next two years, Hardman and Georgel will use the funds to confirm earlier observations that consumption of canola oil, as a source of omega-3 fatty acid, in the maternal diet of mice could reduce risk for breast cancer in the offspring, and to identify the genetic changes associated with a maternal diet that contains omega-3 fatty acid. They hope to find out how canola oil is altering the expression of genes, with the goal of developing a panel of biomarkers to assess risk for breast cancer development in humans.
A third grant of $266,000 to Hardman from the National Institutes of Health will fund the final year of a related four-year study.
According to Hardman, the studies highlight the importance of diet in altering – either reducing or increasing – cancer risk and the importance of maternal diet in cancer risk of the offspring.
“Clinically, this is exciting! We know that maternal diet is important for the immediate health of the baby but are just beginning to learn of the importance for long-term health,” she said. “If a woman can be very careful of her diet for the time of gestation and lactation, the baby may have reduced risk for not only cancer but also heart disease and diabetes.”
Hardman said collaboration is the key to success in today’s research environment.
She said, “At the conclusion of a previous study, I realized that the maternal diet containing a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids from canola oil was reducing breast cancer risk in the female offspring, even if the baby was weaned to a usual diet. This had to be an epigenetic influence – changes in gene expression not due to a mutation but due to markers placed on the chromatin. Dr. Georgel is an expert in changes in chromatin structure, so I needed his expertise to find out what was going on.”
Hardman said their brief preliminary studies demonstrated a change in chromatin structure associated with changed gene expression that could reduce risk for breast cancer, and paved the way for the new DOD grants.
Hardman said, “This research illustrates the importance of collaboration in modern research. Dr. Georgel has important skills and knowledge that I do not have and vice versa. Together we can do far better than either alone.”
Georgel added that the team’s work also highlights the importance of studies of epigenetic events, or events that alter the activity of genes without changing their sequence.
“The generation of disease-specific epigenome maps will provide complementary and crucial information to the already well-established genome map,” he said.
Hardman also said the grants will serve as a good foundation for the new Marshall University Nutrition and Cancer Center, which will support multiple researchers.
Dr. John Maher, vice president for research and executive director of the Marshall University Research Corporation, congratulated Hardman and Georgel, adding that these newest grants help build on the university’s growing reputation for its outstanding biomedical research programs.
Maher said, “The fact that Dr. Hardman and Dr. Georgel’s work was selected for funding by the Department of Defense from more than 100 proposals is further proof that Marshall’s faculty and cancer research programs are top-notch. Their studies will lead to better prevention and treatment options for some of the most pressing health concerns of our time.”
Hardman said once these studies are complete, she and Georgel may turn their attention to exploring whether or not diet changes later in life will also reduce cancer risk by the same or different mechanisms.
For more information about the Marshall University Nutrition and Cancer Center, visit www.marshall.edu/cncc.
Photo: Dr. Elaine Hardman, right, and Dr. Philippe Georgel of Marshall University are investigating the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on breast cancer development. They recently received two of only 18 grants awarded nationwide by the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. Photo by Rick Haye/Marshall University.