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Mary Beth Terry, PhD

Columbia University
New York, New York

Titles and Affiliations

Professor, Department of Epidemiology
Mailman School of Public Health

Research area

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


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 environmental pollutant exposure. Using the data from two established registries of high-risk families, Drs.Terry and Santella have been examining the impact of environmental exposures in young girls. Their studies include 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 be used to develop better risk prediction models and allow for more precise preventive strategies.

Progress Thus Far

In previous studies, Drs. Terry and Santella have shown that exposure to PAH, a common environmental pollutant, increased the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women. Using a method developed in their laboratories, they discovered that this risk is almost 3-fold greater in women whose cells were deficient in DNA repair functions. Recently, they have extended their studies beyond PAHs and are examining the impact of other compounds that interfere with estrogen metabolism (endocrine disruptors) on breast cancer risk and prognosis—analyses are ongoing. In addition, Drs. Santella and Terry are conducting similar studies in breast cancer patients in Ghana.

What’s next

In the coming year, Drs. Terry and Santella will continue their studies to confirm the role of DNA repair deficiency in breast cancer risk due to environmental exposures and other endocrine disrupting chemicals. They will also employ new technologies to measure exposures of a broad range of environmental contaminants to better understand their impact on breast cancer risk. The team will expand these studies and explore a novel method for detecting DNA damage. They will induce DNA damage in blood cells from women with or without cancer and assessed the resulting damage immediately after treatment and several hours later after cells have had a chance to repair it—this comparison will indicate the level of DNA repair. Since studies suggest that the ability to repair DNA damage is a major risk factor for the development of many cancers including breast, they hope that a relatively simple DNA repair assay can eventually be applied in the clinic for better risk assessment.


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.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Aveda Award

Areas of Focus

Lifestyle & Prevention


Regina M. Santella, PhD

Columbia University
New York, New York