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Mary Beth Terry, PhD

Professor, Department of Epidemiology
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University
New York, New York

Current Research

Goal: To understand the impact of environmental exposures on breast cancer risk. 

Impact: Drs. Terry and Santella are conducting studies of how non-genetic changes to DNA and environmental concerns such as pollution affect the likelihood of developing breast cancer in average- and high-risk women. Their findings may lead to better risk prediction models in high-risk individuals.

What’s next: The team has previously developed a method of determining an individual’s ability to repair double strand breaks in DNA and will now develop one for repair of DNA damage related to binding of bulky carcinogens. They will also initiate investigations to determine the effect of endocrine disrupting chemicals on breast cancer risk. In addition, Drs. Terry and Santella will extend their studies to include women in West Africa with high early onset breast cancer. 

When breast cancer occurs frequently in families, it can be due to both genetics and environmental factors. A person’s DNA can affect how their body responds to various environmental influences, such as diet, and chemical exposures. Drs. Terry and Santella are conducting several ongoing studies that measure these exposures and resulting non-genetic damage to DNA in order to improve breast cancer risk prediction models for high-risk families

Full Research Summary

Research area: Developing better risk prediction models in high-risk individuals by incorporating biomarkers of environmental exposures, genetic susceptibility, and non-genetic DNA alterations. 

Impact: Environmental chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloro-ethane (DDT) cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. The severity of the damage and the ability to repair it influences the risk for development of breast cancer. Women with an already high risk of breast cancer—due to inherited factors or strong family history—may be more vulnerable to exposure to environmental pollutants. Drs. Terry and Santella have been investigating how environmental exposures and genetic susceptibility—specifically as it relates to the ability to repair DNA damage—are related to breast cancer risk. This work will improve risk assessment models and allow for more precise preventive interventions. 
Current research: Drs. Terry and Santella are developing tests to measure different types of DNA damage in a sample of blood to study how DNA repair deficiency affects breast cancer risk among diverse populations of high-risk women. 

What they’ve learned so far: In previous BCRF supported work, the team found that exposure to PAH, a common environmental pollutant, increased the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women and that deficient DNA damage repair is involved in this increased risk. 

What’s next: In the coming year, Drs. Terry and Santella will develop a new assay to determine the efficiency of DNA damage repair in breast cancer patients in the Breast Cancer Family Registry (BCRF) to determine the role of DNA repair on the development of second cancers and overall mortality. They will also expand their studies to examine the levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the plasma of women in the BCFR and how they affect both risk and prognosis after breast cancer diagnosis. In collaboration with investigators in Ghana, they will conduct similar studies in young women with and without breast cancer


Mary Beth Terry, PhD, is a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She focuses her research on breast cancer and in the molecular epidemiology and life-course methods of the disease, in particular. She is a cancer epidemiologist with over 15 years of leading studies of breast cancer etiology specifically focused on the role genetics, epigenetics, and other biomarkers play in modifying the effects of environmental exposures. Dr. Terry currently leads four NIH grants through the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences that focus on following cancer risk within family-based cohorts. Her more recent work studying biomarkers, which can be modified throughout life, supports the assertion that selected markers of DNA methylation and other biomarkers are associated with breast cancer risk even within high risk families. Understanding whether biomarkers can help explain risk in higher risk women is important, as only a minority of women with a family history of cancer carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Her work also focuses on measuring risk factors for mammographic density, a strong intermediate marker of breast cancer. In addition to her doctorate in epidemiology from Columbia University, Dr. Terry has a Master's degree in economics and previously worked as an econometrician and program evaluator for a number of government-sponsored programs. Dr. Terry teaches introductory and advanced epidemiologic methods at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Large Researcher Headshot - Terry Mary Beth

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Aveda Award

Area(s) of Focus