Professor Leena Hilakivi-Clarke Research Spotlight
My goal is to understand what causes breast cancer, and then use that knowledge to prevent it.
What is the impact of your research in your field?
When I started in the early 1990’s to study whether maternal diet during pregnancy might determine offspring’s later susceptibility to develop breast cancer, one grant reviewer told me that according to his/her intuition, I was wrong. Now it is widely accepted that maternal exposures during pregnancy, including diet, affect daughter’s breast cancer risk. We also have shown that maternal dietary exposures not only affect daughter’s breast cancer risk but an increase in breast cancer risk is seen in great grand-daughters of dams fed a high fat diet during pregnancy.
How can people see the impact of your research on everyday life?
At present time, over half of pregnant women are overweight or obese. This represents 5-fold increase in the past 50 years. Further, one third of pregnant women gain more weight during pregnancy than recommended. Since breast cancer incidence increases around the world, and 60-70% of women developing breast cancer have no known “traditional” risk factors for breast cancer (family history, early puberty onset, having first child after age 30 or not having any children, etc.), it is time to determine the role of maternal obesity and diet during pregnancy in contributing to daughter’s breast cancer risk, and take steps to reduce the incidence of maternal obesity during pregnancy and provide dietary advice for pregnant women.
What drew you to your field of study?
It has been known for a long time that fetal environment in the womb can have a long-lasting effect on the offspring. As a PhD student in Finland, I was studying the adverse effects of maternal alcohol drinking during pregnancy on the offspring’s brain and behavior. I became fascinated with the idea that susceptibility to depression and increased alcohol intake in the offspring may be pre-programmed by what a mother did during pregnancy. Towards the end of my 3-year post doc periods as a Fogarty Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, I started to wonder if the fetal period may also pre-programmed susceptibility to develop breast cancer.
What is your favorite research/lab tool and why?
I have always loved working with newborn laboratory rodents. Whilst I was monitoring their maturation (checking how they gain weight, reach developmental milestones, etc), I could talk to them like I were their mom. Now my favorite research tool is my computer: it is amazing how much I can learn about everything under the sun through the computer.
What do you consider to be your greatest research accomplishment?
I think the greatest accomplishment is still in a future, but hopefully in a near future. I wish to determine if we should target the epigenome or gut microbiome, or both, to prevent breast cancer, especially in women born to overweight or obese mothers. Then determine how that can be accomplished.
What is your favorite food science or nutrition fact?
We cannot substitute foods with supplements to prevent breast cancer. In the same way as we cannot prevent or treat breast cancer by targeting one gene at a time (estrogen receptor being a rare exception), we should not assume that consuming boat-loads of a single ingredient in a food is good for us. Beta-carotene increasing lung cancer risk, instead of preventing it, is a good example of this misconception.