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Regina M. Santella, PhD

Columbia University
New York, New York

Titles and Affiliations

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

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. Santella and Terry 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. Santella and Terry 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. Santella and Terry will continue their studies to confirm the role of DNA repair deficiency in breast cancer risk due to environmental exposures and 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.. Since studies suggest that ability to repair DNA damage is a major risk factor for 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.


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. Her 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.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Aveda Award

Areas of Focus

Lifestyle & Prevention


Mary Beth Terry, PhD

Columbia University
New York, New York