Breast cancer prevention: are the answers in our genes?

29 October 2014

Toronto -

The Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) are investing in a new generation of researchers looking to stop cancer before it starts.

The organizations are co-funding 2 Capacity Development Awards in Prevention Research focusing on genetic discoveries that could help thousands of women. The funding supports some of the most promising young researchers of cancer prevention in Canada.

“Expanding Canada’s prevention research community is a priority for the Canadian Cancer Society, and we’re excited to be partnering with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation on these new awards,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “Through these types of investments, together with our partners, we strive to expand cancer prevention research activities in Canada with the goal of stopping cancer before it starts.”

“With more than 24,000 women in Canada diagnosed with breast cancer each year, prevention research and programs is a top priority for CBCF,” says Sandra Palmaro, Co-CEO of Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. “By investing in the most promising and innovative research, we believe we can significantly reduce the prevalence of breast cancer so that fewer women experience a breast cancer diagnosis.”

The 2 award recipients are Dr Mohammad Akbari, who is looking for genetic clues to develop tests for the early detection of breast and other hereditary cancers, and Dr Caroline Diorio, who is looking at the role diet plays in breast cancer.

Finding genetic clues to prevent cancer

Hereditary cancers are estimated to account for up to 10% of all cancers, but existing genetic tests are able to detect only a fraction of those and are unable to detect any of the remaining 90% of sporadic cancers where, emerging research data indicate, genetic susceptibility plays an important role.

At Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto, Dr Mohammad Akbari has received a new Capacity Development Award worth $225,000 to support his research career focused on revealing important genetic information about breast and other hereditary cancers.  Dr Akbari aims to develop new tests for early detection and targeted treatment strategies and, most importantly, prevent the disease by identifying people at risk.

Currently, genetic testing is available to individuals in limited situations. For example, women who have a family history of breast and ovarian cancer can be tested for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Studies have shown that women with inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations have up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Women with these inherited mutations also have a higher risk of developing breast cancer at a younger age.

Dr Akbari is using genetic information to identify people with gene mutations linked to cancer in order to prevent the disease and to identify genetic risk factors soon after a cancer diagnosis. Using DNA samples from cancer patients, he is:

  • identifying genes linked to cancer risk
  • studying the feasibility of providing more genetic testing in clinics
  • evaluating the success of treatments in patients with gene mutations

“What I want to achieve with my research is to help identify as many possible carriers of cancer-causing gene mutations,” Dr Akbari says. “If we can identify the individuals who are at high risk for the disease, then we can take the preventive steps to reduce their risk.”

Putting your genes on a diet
Omega-3, a fatty acid that seems to have extraordinary health properties, may also have an important role to play in preventing breast cancer.

Dr Caroline Diorio, a scientist at Laval University, will examine how dietary omega-3 and body weight affect genes that are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Dr Diorio has also received a new Capacity Development Award worth $225,000 to support her research.

Recent studies have shown that omega-3 may have a protective effect against breast cancer. However, the benefit may be limited to women who are post-menopausal and obese. Dr Diorio wants to examine the connection between omega-3, obesity and breast cancer risk by assessing:

  • the association between omega-3 levels, obesity-related genetic markers and known risk factors
  • whether dietary omega-3 reduces breast cancer risk at the cellular and molecular levels
  • whether the benefits of omega-3 are limited to post-menopausal obese women

“I really wish to find something to help prevent the disease,” Dr Diorio says. “By gaining a better understanding of the connection between omega-3, obesity and breast cancer risk, we’ll be that much closer to being able to offer women a personalized prevention plan to reduce their risk of getting cancer.”

More about the Capacity Development Awards in Prevention

These awards support the career development of junior investigators in the area of cancer prevention and risk-reduction research. The Canadian Cancer Society recently announced 6 new awards totalling $1.35 million in funding. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is co-funding the awards received by Dr Akbari and Dr Diorio.

About the Canadian Cancer Society

Through our generous donors and rigorous peer-review process, the Canadian Cancer Society funds the best cancer research in Canada. Our funded researchers work in universities, hospitals and research centres across the country and are mapping new ways to change cancer forever. For more information, visit or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).


About the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) is the leading community-driven organization in Canada dedicated to creating a future without breast cancer. Its investments in innovative and relevant research and education have led to progress in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care. Since 1986, CBCF has been at the forefront of a nationwide movement supporting and advocating for the breast cancer community. For more information, visit

For more information, please contact:

Brooke Kelly

Communications Coordinator

Canadian Cancer Society

National office

Phone: 416-934-5321