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Is Susan G. Komen Denying the BPA-Breast Cancer Link?

Critics claim the leading breast cancer research group is in the pocket of its BPA-happy sponsors.

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Ranked in the 2010 Harris Interactive Polls as the second most trusted nonprofit in America, Komen awarded researchers $55 million worth of grants in 2011. Critics accuse major cancer organizations of pouring every dollar into drug studies, but in Komen's case, that's actually not true. In the 2011 research portfolio, a small portion of Komen's funding is going toward specific environmental exposures—including a $450,000 study on BPA by a Komen-funded researcher who hypothesizes that BPA "causes or accelerates breast cancer." 

A small portion of Komen’s funding is going toward specific environmental exposures—including a $450,000 study on BPA by a Komen-funded researcher who hypothesizes that BPA "causes or accelerates breast cancer."

Winer said that before 2011, Komen also decided to fund an approximately $1.25 million panel at the Institute of Medicine on environmental exposures, precisely because of such intense debate around the issue. The results will be announced in December, he said. "If the Institute of Medicine comes forward and concludes that there are statements on the website, or statements that any of us have made that are not accurate, we're going to correct those."

In 2007, Komen funded another review of studies on environmental toxins and breast cancer through the Silent Spring Institute. This made Komen's online statements all the more disturbing to the institute's executive director, Dr. Julia Brody. She says that she wrote to Winer twice about her concerns. "I felt a particular obligation to bring these issues to Komen's attention because the information on the website conflicts in various ways with the findings of the science review that we conducted with Komen funding," Brody told me via email.


For its part, Komen maintains
that its close ties with industry are critical to its success. Indeed, the foundation's diverse group of sponsors has helped it invest close to $2 billion in its mission. The money funds projects like national research and free biopsies for uninsured women. "For anyone to suggest that the reason that the environment isn't studied is because, somehow, doctors are interacting with pharmaceutical companies over drugs, is truly an inaccurate statement," Winer said. "And bordering in my mind as a very offensive statement."

Searches of Winer's published research show that he has received grant money from pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Genentech in the past. In an interview, he said he's also served as an unpaid and paid consultant to various pharmaceutical companies.

"I'm less involved from a financial standpoint than almost anyone I know," Winer said. In addition to his work at Komen, Winer is the Director of the Breast Oncology Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical Center. "I actually, for many years, accepted no personal honoraria from any pharmaceutical company. And this is a time, when in fact, what we desperately need are for people in academia and people in industry to work closely together. Because people in industry, or the companies, are the ones that have the drugs."

In any case, some have argued that debates over specific cases of industry influence miss the larger point: that it's the government's job to protect consumers through better regulation of chemicals. But because of gaps in the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA has toxicity data on less than 1 percent of the 83,000 chemicals in commerce, according to a widely cited paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives. And the US Food and Drug Administration can't seem to make up its mind on the subject. The agency said that BPA is safe in a draft report in 2008. But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel then broke the news that the FDA had based its draft report on industry-funded studies. (The FDA has since said it has some concern over health risks of BPA.) Even such mainstream groups as the American Nurses Association are lobbying to reform the United States' chemical regulation policy. But until that policy reform actually happens, it's up to consumers to research potentially unsafe, everyday products themselves.

On September 19, after the troubling results from the California Pacific Medical Center study on BPA were announced, Komen's website shows that it updated its "Factors That Do Not Increase Risk" page. But for the pesticide and plastics statements, not a word was changed.

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