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NBCF hosts its Scholar in Residence, Professor Dame Valerie Beral

December 14th, 2015

NBCF’s inaugural Scholar in Residence, Professor Dame Valerie Beral, an esteemed epidemiologist and Fellow from the University of Oxford, UK, is visiting Australia to give a series of talks on the prevention of breast cancer.

Dame Valerie is a world leader in epidemiology, the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and diseases in specific populations. Her work helps to identify hot spots and geographic differences in risk and susceptibility to breast cancer.

She is well-known for her work leading the Million Women Study which investigated how a woman’s reproductive history affects her health, with a particular focus on the effects of hormones, including the pill and hormone replacement therapy, on breast cancer.

Her ongoing large-scale analysis of breast cancer data from around the world reveals that women in developed countries have more than six times the risk of developing the disease, compared to rural Asian and African countries. This difference is primarily due to differences in how many children women have, and how long they breastfed.

Women in low-income countries have larger families and breastfeed longer, which according to the data has a protective impact against developing breast cancer. This used to be the case in middle-income countries, such as India and Brazil, but women in these countries are now having fewer children than previous generations and breast cancer incidence is increasing there.

She described the changing international pattern of breast cancer, showing that worldwide incidence rates have doubled in the last 20 years. This is mainly because of substantial increase in incidence among women in middle-income countries.

Dame Valerie says that if it is possible to replicate the physiological benefits of childbearing and prolonged breastfeeding, it may be possible to significantly reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

Dame Valerie spoke to researchers in Melbourne, Queensland and Sydney, among other findings on the impact of ‘modifiable’ risk factors such as alcohol and obesity.

She explained that serious approaches to breast cancer prevention require detailed understanding of the mechanism by which childbearing and breastfeeding provides long-term protection against breast cancer, even for women in their 60s and 70s.

She was pleased to discuss NBCF-funded work being done by Dr Kara Britt from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, who is studying the cellular and functional changes associated with childbearing aimed at understanding the protective effects. Application of her research may suggest ways to prevent breast cancer in the future.

Acting CEO for NBCF, Jackie Coles, says, “We’re very proud to host Dame Valerie Beral as NBCF’s Scholar in Residence. Her visit strengthens our international collaboration and gives Australian-based researchers the opportunity to work with and learn from an internationally-acclaimed research leader.”