University of Vermont

The University of Vermont Cancer Center

Ahern Receives Susan G. Komen Grant to Study Role of Phthalate Exposure in Breast Cancer

Thomas Ahern, Ph.D., M.P.H., Assistant Professor of Epidemiology
Thomas Ahern, Ph.D., M.P.H., Assistant Professor of Epidemiology (Photo: UVM Medical Photography)

Exposure to phthalates – synthetic chemicals used in such common products as toys, plastic goods, personal care products and medications – and their role in increased risk of breast cancer is the focus of a new, three-year $450,000 Susan G. Komen Foundation grant received by Thomas Ahern, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Surgery’s surgical research division.

While nearly 85 percent of Americans have detectable levels of these compounds in their bodies, individuals who ingest phthalates through daily medications, or, who have daily exposure through their job/vocation, have dramatically higher exposure. These chemicals are thought to disrupt hormonal signaling in the body, and may be involved in cancer development, as well as pose other potential health risks. Preliminary studies suggest a link between phthalates and breast cancer risk, but the Institute of Medicine has stressed the need for definitive evidence of this link.

Ahern, a member of the Vermont Cancer Center at UVM and Fletcher Allen, has already been studying this issue. His project, an epidemiologic study conducted in collaboration with Denmark’s Aarhus University, focuses on chronic, high-level phthalate exposure through medications. If an association is established, says Ahern, clinical practice standards, as well as pharmaceutical manufacturing, may change, increasing the use of phthalate-free medications.

Outcomes such as these may substantially reduce the risk of breast cancer in a highly exposed population in just a few years’ time. On the other hand, if the new evidence points to no link between phthalate exposure and breast cancer risk, women would be reassured that exposure to phthalates through prescription drug regimens does not promote breast cancer development.

The Vermont/New Hampshire Komen affiliate is enthusiastic about the grant.

“It’s an important and very topical project being conducted here in Vermont, which may have ramifications on breast cancer thinking and possible prevention the world over,” said Komen Vermont-New Hampshire Affiliate President Becky Burke.  “It’s also a very tangible example of what becomes of some of the funds raised through Races for the Cure and other events nationwide.”

According to Burke, 75 percent of funds raised in VT/NH by the local Komen affiliate stay here in Vermont and New Hampshire, funding screening, prevention and research and education efforts throughout the region.  The grant awarded to Ahern represents some of the 25 percent of funds all affiliates, nationwide, donate back to Komen’s research mission for strategic breast cancer research initiatives.