Lab Canada

Researchers to study effects of Vitamin D and insulin on breast cancer

Ottawa, ON – Five collaborating breast cancer research teams received a $2.9 million research grant from the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance (CBCRA), in conjunction with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) – Institute of Cancer Research and Institute of Gender and Health, to pursue research related to the newly identified roles of insulin signalling and vitamin D in breast cancer risk.

“Recent data suggest that, particularly in northern countries such as Canada, lower than required levels of vitamin D in many women may increase breast cancer risk – and confirmation of this would suggest interesting and novel approaches for risk reduction,” says team leader Dr Michael Pollak, professor of oncology at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, Sir Mortimer B Davis – Jewish General Hospital and McGill University in Montreal.

“With respect to insulin, recent provocative studies suggest that many women, especially those who have a low level of physical activity in relation to the amount of food they consume, and who have high insulin levels – have increased breast cancer risk and/or a worse prognosis,” continues Dr Pollak. “It is important to clarify the molecular mechanisms involved in insulin action on breast cancer cells so that we can improve current methods for minimizing breast cancer risk and maximize the effectiveness of treatments offered to breast cancer patients.”

Until recently, the main diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency and insulin control in women were osteoporosis and diabetes, respectively.

“This innovative multi-project proposal has the potential to quickly translate laboratory research findings into novel approaches for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer,” says Dr Philip Branton, scientific director of CIHR’s Institute of Cancer Research.

Five teams under the translation acceleration grants for breast cancer control will pursue four main research directions, in breast cancer development:

– The role of vitamin D and calcium supplementation in reducing breast cancer risk for some women. The group will also build upon recent laboratory research examining the role of insulin in both treatment and prevention of breast cancer;

– The implications of insulin resistance, which is increasingly common in populations with a Western diet and lifestyle, and which has been linked to a poor prognosis in breast cancer;

– Novel approaches to overcoming resistance to current breast cancer treatments that will lead to clinical trials of novel drug candidates that target signals in cancer cells related to insulin; and,

– The relationship between clinical outcomes in-patients and specific molecules or activation of molecular pathways within cancer cells. To do this, the researchers will examine thousands of breast cancer specimens.

“As an oncologist who treats breast cancer patients, I am reminded every day of the need to improve current prevention and treatment methods,” says Dr Pollak. "The teams of dedicated scientists and clinicians we have assembled are eager to move forward with a research program that will explore a number of promising leads that deserve investigation because they have the potential to influence clinical practice.”

The translation acceleration grants for breast cancer control foster a team approach which brings together top researchers to focus on accelerating the application of recent laboratory research findings into prevention and treatment strategies. Dr Miriam Stewart, scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health, noted that the institute, as a co-lead on this important initiative, is delighted to support transformative research like Dr Pollak’s that will ultimately exert a positive impact on practice, programs and policies. This project was selected for funding on the recommendation of a specially convened panel of international scientists with broad knowledge and expertise in the proposed areas of study.

Dr Pollak’s collaborators, all recognized experts in their fields, are Dr Jacques Brisson (Laval University), Dr Sandra Dunn (University of British Columbia, Vancouver), Dr Ivan Fantus (Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto) and Dr Nahum Sonenberg (McGill University, Montreal).