Biomedical scientist Rajkumar Lakshmanaswamy, Ph.D., has received a $1.1 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to study how early pregnancy reduces a woman's risk for breast cancer.
"We've known for centuries that women who don't have children run a high risk for breast cancer," says Lakshmanaswamy, a professor of biomedical sciences at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso). "So what is it about pregnancy, particularly early pregnancy, that reduces a women's lifetime risk of breast cancer?"
Studies have shown that if a woman gives birth to her first child before the age of 20, her risk of developing breast cancer is half that of a woman who has never undergone a full-term pregnancy, or a woman who had her first child after the age of 35. The biological processes that cause this protective effect, however, are not well understood.
With the grant, Lakshmanaswamy hopes to better understand the natural processes behind the phenomenon, which could lead to new prevention and treatment strategies for breast cancer.
The TTUHSC El Paso research team will specifically study growth hormone and prolactin, two hormones known for stimulating breast cancer growth, but that dramatically dip in women after pregnancy. Lakshmanaswamy believes this hormonal reduction in postpartum women affects tissue within the breast, causing it to permanently alter and become resistant to mammary cancer.
"If you think about it, by design, mammals are wired to make babies as soon as they achieve puberty — except humans, who choose to have babies at later ages," he explains. "So when a woman opts to hold off on children, she may be delaying an important natural process."
The biomedical scientist emphasizes that he does not recommend for women to get pregnant early to avoid breast cancer; he only hopes to gain more knowledge on the protective phenomenon so that it can be translated into a new therapy for breast cancer.