Household Chemicals Could Be Linked to Aggressive Form of Breast Cancer, Scientists Believe

Scientists believe an aggressive form of breast cancer could be linked to common household items.

Such products include household detergents, antiseptics and prescribed medications, as well as industrial pollutants, according to researchers who presented their work—which hasn't been peer-reviewed—at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference in the U.K. city of Brighton.

Experts explained the research could help with the development of new treatments for what is known as triple-negative breast cancer, and urged people not to be worried by items in their homes.

Triple-negative breast cancer makes up between 10 to 20 percent of breast cancer cases. In the U.S. it mainly affects those aged under 50, as well as African-American and Hispanic women. Around 70 percent of people with the BRCA1 gene mutation who go on to develop breast cancer are triple-negative.

This form of breast cancer is more aggressive and harder to treat than others. It earns its name as the tumor's growth isn't fueled by estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 protein. That means it can't be attacked using hormonal treatments or those that target HER2 receptors. Instead, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery ared used.

"The only current therapeutic option for TNBC [Triple-negative breast cancer] is chemotherapy, which has limited efficacy, and therefore novel therapies are desperately needed," the researchers wrote in their abstract.

To uncover risk factors and potential new treatments for the disease, researchers in the U.K. studied what are known as nuclear receptors. These environmental sensors help to control breast tissue, and are activated by hormones like estrogen and progesterone. It is thought these receptors can be activated by chemicals around us, and breast cancer is believed to change how they work.

The scientists compared nuclear receptors from 168 samples of cancerous and healthy breast tissue, as well as results from past studies involving what they described as a "larger cohort." They wanted to see if they could find a pattern in the receptors of those with triple-negative breast cancer.

The team found many of the nuclear receptors behaved differently in the breast cancer samples. Using a computer model, they identified certain household detergents, antiseptics, industrial pollutants and prescribed medications which might to activate nuclear receptors, or change how they are expressed.

Study co-author Laura Matthews, a breast cancer and nuclear receptor expert at the University of Leeds, said in a statement: "We are now investigating how the environmental chemicals change the behavior of normal breast cells so we can understand how they might drive cancer development.

"We are also testing whether using drug combinations that target multiple NRs [nuclear receptors] at the same time might prevent or be an effective treatment for TNBC. Our goal is to reduce the number of people that develop breast cancer, and guide new therapies, so that more people can live beyond breast cancer," she said.

Amy Hirst, a health information office at the charity Cancer Research U.K. who did not work on the research, told Newsweek: "Research like this is important, as it could help us to understand more about breast cancer risk and possible new ways to treat it."

She said although researchers suggest certain chemicals may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, she stressed products sold in countries like the U.K. are "tightly controlled for safety."

"This research did not look at how chemicals impact people directly, it was based on computer predictions," she said.

"So rather than worry about the things you use at home day-to-day, the best thing you can do to reduce your breast cancer risk is to keep a healthy weight and cut down on alcohol."

Mangesh Thorat, an expert in cancer prevention at Kings College London and Queen Mary University of London, both in the U.K., was also not involved in the work. He said in a statement: "While this preliminary study does not at the moment have any clinical or public health implications, it identifies new avenues for research into causes of a type of breast cancer and the biomarkers identified could be clinically useful in treatment of this cancer if appropriately validated in further studies."

Justin Stebbing, professor of Cancer Medicine and Medical Oncology at Imperial College London, who also didn't work on the project, commented in a statement: "Because these receptors can sometimes be activated by typical household products, it also means that in the future we can try to understand the effect of our environment by looking at this interaction. This study opens up new avenues for research. However, for now there is no link between household antiseptics or chemicals to breast cancer."

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A stock image shows a clinician looking at a mammogram. Scientists have found a link between breast cancer and certain everyday products.