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Regina M. Santella, PhD

Professor of Environmental Health Sciences
Vice Dean for Faculty Affairs
Mailman School of Public Health
Co-leader Cancer Population Science Program
Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center
Columbia University
New York, New York

Current Research

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

Impact: Drs. Santella and Terry are conducting international 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 will expand their investigations to Columbia as well as to parts of West Africa, where rates of early-onset breast cancer are high. They will also study the role that DNA repair plays in the development of second cancers and survival.

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, chemical exposures, and so forth. Drs. Santella and Terry are conducting several ongoing studies that measure these exposures and non-genetic damage to DNA in order to improve breast cancer risk prediction models for high-risk families.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Understanding the impact on environmental exposures on breast cancer risk in high-risk women.

Impact: Environmental chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and 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 the exposure to environmental pollutants. Drs. Santella and Terry 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. Santella and Terry 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 in the U.S., Taiwan, and Africa.

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. They did not, however, see the same affect in Taiwanese women of average risk.

What’s next: In the coming year, they will expand their studies of DNA repair capacity in a pilot study in the African country, Ghana and analyze the effect of DNA repair deficiency on the risk of second cancer and overall mortality in women with a history of breast cancer.


Regina M. Santella, PhD, is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences. She is a laboratory-based biochemist with extensive experience in the area of chemical carcinogenesis and molecular epidemiology. Her research is mainly focused on the use of biomarkers of exposure and genetic susceptibility to understand risk for cancer development. Her laboratory has developed antibodies and immunoassays to a number of carcinogen-DNA and protein adducts and uses these methods to determine exposure to environmental carcinogens. Other assays have been used to understand genetic susceptibility related to DNA repair capacity. More recently, her laboratory is investigating the use of epigenetic markers including global and gene specific methylation and microRNA expression in breast tumors and white blood cells to identify those at increased risk or as early biomarkers of disease. Breast cancer studies take advantage of two large sample banks, the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project, a population-based case-control study and the Breast Cancer Family Registry of members of high risk families.

Large Researcher Headshot - Santella Regina

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Aveda Award

Area(s) of Focus