Shortly before the beginning of October, a month dedicated to breast cancer awareness, Marshall University announced that two of its researchers had been awarded federal funds totaling more than $1 million to assess the effects of omega 3 fatty acids on breast cancer development.
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, were awarded three grants—two from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Breast Cancer Research Program worth $460,249 and $320,750, and a third totaling $266,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The research team will use the funds to delve deeper into earlier observations that a maternal diet including canola oil, as a source of omega 3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk for breast cancer in the offspring, and to identify the genetic changes associated with a maternal diet that contains omega 3 fatty acids. The pre-clinical studies are to be conducted on mice.
During the next two years, Drs. Hardman and Georgel will use the DoD funds to hopefully develop a panel of biomarkers to assess the risk of breast cancer development in humans by determining how canola oil alters the expression of genes. The NIH grant will fund the final year of a related four-year study.
In a Marshall University-issued press release, Dr. Hardman expounded on the clinical excitement surrounding the research. “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.”
As for her fascination with omega 3’s impact on breast cancer, Dr. Hardman said years ago, while looking a general diet influence on cancer she realized that dietary fat made a big difference, especially omega 3 fat. “I have shown over the years that omega 3 in the diet is beneficial whether you are looking at preventing cancer, slowing the growth of existing cancer or want to increase the efficacy of chemotherapy,” 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."
In an interview with Nutraceuticals World, Dr. Hardman discussed why her partnership with Dr. Georgel was imperative to the success of this research. "I enlisted Dr. Georgel’s help when a previous study indicated that maternal diet was influencing breast cancer risk in the baby, even months after the baby had been exposed to the diet,” she said. “This seemed to be an epigenetic effect or some kind or imprinting on genes in the mammary gland of the baby during development. Dr. Georgel is an expert in epigenetic [chromatin structure] changes that result in change in gene expression.”
Dr. Georgel added that research will highlight 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.
The pair hope to use their work to blaze a new trail regarding how omega 3 consumption influences breast cancer risk. “In most past research, the work has been on effects of omega 3 when consumed by the individual (mouse) with cancer [whereas] this work will look at maternal effects of omega 3 on development of cancer in the offspring,” she said. “If the work continues as the preliminary data indicate, then a mother could make some dietary changes during the time of pregnancy and nursing that could profoundly influence the risk for the baby to develop cancer.”
When asked about if omega 3 supplements could play a role in her theories, Dr. Hardman said a healthy diet should carry more importance than supplement consumption. “If people eat a healthy diet, no supplements are needed,” she said. “For every active component that I can think of, consuming the component as part of a whole food is better than trying to take a supplement. Supplements may be beneficial in specific situations but until we do a clinical trial to test the hypothesis, we really don’t know if it will be useful or not.”