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Thomas W. Kensler, PhD
Full Member, Public Health Sciences Division
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Goal: To understand the role of diet during adolescence and early adulthood and how it relates to future breast cancer risk.
Impact: Dr. Kensler has shown that young people who eat a pro-inflammatory diet are at greater risk of developing breast cancer later in life. In contrast, those who ate an anti-inflammatory diet had a lower risk. These studies could identify new ways to reduce the likelihood of developing the disease through healthy dietary changes made in the earlier stages of life.
What’s next: Dr. Kensler will examine whether inflammation and estrogen-related dietary patterns are associated with menstrual cycle characteristics, breast density, and benign breast disease—factors known to increase breast cancer risk.
While adult diet and breast cancer risk has been extensively studied, few clear associations have been identified. However, the effects of lifestyle factors such as diet can begin early in life, so adulthood may not be the important period in a woman’s life for her diet to affect her breast cancer risk. Dr. Kensler’s work is advancing the understanding of the association between adolescent diet and breast cancer risk factors—an area of research that has received little attention.
Full Research Summary
Research area: Identifying new strategies to reduce breast cancer risk through healthy dietary changes made during adolescence and young adulthood.
Impact: While many researchers have investigated associations between adult diet and breast cancer risk, significantly less work has been done to determine diet during adolescence and risk factors for breast cancer. By focusing on adolescence—likely a highly susceptible phase for breast cancer carcinogenesis during a woman’s lifetime—Dr. Kensler may be able to identify dietary interventions that could reduce the risk of breast cancer later in life.
Current investigation: Having found that women who ate an unhealthy, inflammation-associated diet as teenagers and young adults were at greater risk of breast cancer in later life—and that those who ate a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet had a lower risk—Dr. Kensler and his team are now conducting studies to learn what biological factors might explain these associations. (An inflammatory diet is one high in sugar, refined foods, processed meats, and trans or saturated fats; an anti-inflammatory is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.)
What he’s learned so far: Dr. Kensler’s recent findings indicate that adolescent diet doesn’t appear to strongly influence breast density—a strong risk factor for breast cancer—when a woman is in her 40s. The team’s future goals include examining how breast density in a woman’s 20s and 30s might be more influenced by diet than later-life breast density.
What’s next: Dr. Kensler will examine whether inflammation and estrogen-related dietary patterns are associated with menstrual cycle characteristics, breast density, and benign breast disease, which are all factors known to increase breast cancer risk. He also plans to measure breast density using DXA scans—a validated low-radiation measurement option ideal for use in younger women—in early adulthood among study participants with previously collected adolescent data.
Thomas Kensler is a Full Member in the Public Health Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He obtained his doctorate at MIT and trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin and at the National Cancer Institute. After 30 years on the faculty of the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, he moved his primary appointment to the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. In 2018, Dr. Kensler moved his primary appointment to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, and has an Emeritus faculty appointment at Johns Hopkins.
The goal of his laboratory is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved in the induction of cancer by chemicals to serve as a basis for the prevention, interruption or reversal of these processes in humans. A major mechanism of protection against environmental carcinogenesis is the induction of enzymes involved in their detoxication and elimination. To translate laboratory findings to humans, his group has conducted a series of "proof-of-principle" randomized clinical trials of broccoli sprout beverages rich in the phytochemical sulforaphane in populations at high risk for exposures to air- and food-borne toxins and carcinogens. They are now developing and validating biomarkers to assess the efficacy of broccoli-based interventions to block the DNA damaging actions of reactive estrogen metabolites in the context of breast cancer prevention.
Dr. Kensler’s numerous awards include the AACR-American Cancer Society Award for Excellence in Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, Society of Toxicology Translational Impact Award and the National Friendship Award, Beijing, China’s highest award for foreign civilians. He has published over 350 research articles. He is a former chair of the NIH Chemo-Dietary Study Section and is on the editorial board of several journals.
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