Researcher Investigating Link Between Breastfeeding and Reduced Breast Cancer Risk

Dr Ramaswamy

Here’s what is known: Women who have multiple pregnancies and breastfeed their newborns for an extended period of time have lower rates of breast cancer.

“But interestingly, the population science data also says that if you have a higher number of pregnancies, what we call parity, and don’t breastfeed, you actually increase your risk of breast cancer,” said Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy, MD, an associate professor and breast cancer expert at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

African-American women have a high parity rate, but a low rate of breastfeeding, which leads to a higher risk of breast cancer, Dr. Ramaswamy said. “And, they tend to get a higher percentage of the more-aggressive, triple negative breast cancer. A higher percentage of African-American women die from breast cancer,” she added.

What has yet to be discovered is the why: The link between parity and breastfeeding and a reduced risk of breast cancer, in particular, triple negative breast cancer.

But now, with funding from a Pelotonia Idea Grant, Dr. Ramaswamy will try to unravel this mystery. In the meantime, she urges all new moms to breastfeed their babies if they are able. “Breastfeeding will only save lives,” Dr. Ramaswamy said. “There are no negatives.”

For example, only about 45 to 50 percent of African-American mothers breastfeed, while the rate for Caucasian women is approximately 75 percent, Dr. Ramaswamy said. “If we can get the rate up to 75 percent for African-American women, we can save a lot of lives.”

Dr. Ramaswamy has devoted her clinical care and research to treating breast cancer patients and finding enhanced treatment options. It became even more personal after she was recently diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.

“I was already on this path, but now I am even more determined,” Dr. Ramaswamy said.

In triple negative breast cancer, the three most common receptors that fuel the disease – estrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors – are not present. “The cancer cells don’t depend on estrogen for growth and tend to be more aggressive and multiply faster – and we don’t have as many targets for treatment,” Dr. Ramaswamy said of triple negative breast cancer.

Her chemotherapy and radiation treatment at the OSUCCC – James ended in mid-August.

Now that she’s back at work, Dr. Ramaswamy is determined to unravel a few of the mysteries of breast cancer, parity and breastfeeding with the help of her Pelotonia Idea Grant. She collaborates with Gustavo Leone, PhD, Associate Director for Basic Research at the OSUCCC – James. “He provides the framework and support for my research,” Dr. Ramaswamy said.

Her research will begin by looking, at the cellular level, at the “differences between a breast that does not lactate and one that lactates for a few months,” Dr. Ramaswamy said.

Another clue she will investigate is the inflammatory cycle a woman’s breast goes through as she becomes pregnant, lactates and eventually stops breastfeeding. Dr. Ramaswamy explains that this is the “involution” cycle. Normally, inflammation can lead to cancer, “but inflammation in the breast over a long period of time during breastfeeding seems to protect it, which is very interesting,” she said. “The length of the involution cycle seems to be an important factor.”

Dr. Ramaswamy will also look at the role of STAT3, a protein, and how it is related to the pro-inflammatory process.

The preliminary data Dr. Ramaswamy collects could lead to additional funding.

“We initially sent this proposal to a few other funding organizations,” she said. “We got a lot of good comments, but they wanted more preliminary data. That is why the Pelotonia grants, which allow us to gather this preliminary data, are so important.”

Dr. Ramaswamy plans to use the preliminary data she and her team gather over the next few months to apply for a larger grant in 2017 that will allow them to expand the scope of their research.

“I’ve never been so excited about my work,” Dr. Ramaswamy said.