Thomas W. Kensler, PhD
Professor, Public Health Sciences Division
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
To understand the role of diet during adolescence and early adulthood and how it relates to future breast cancer risk.
While many researchers have investigated associations between breast cancer risk and adult diet, significantly less work has been done to investigate the assocation of diet during adolescence. By focusing on adolescence, likely a highly susceptible phase for breast cancer carcinogenesis during a woman's lifetime, Dr. Kensler's team is identifying dietary interventions that could reduce the risk of breast cancer in adulthood. Through these studies, he hopes to identify actionable ways to reduce breast cancer risk in young women through dietary choices.
Dr. Kensler and his team have 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. (An inflammatory diet is one high in sugar, refined foods, processed meats, and trans or saturated fats; an anti-inflammatory diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes). They also examined the association of inflammation and estrogen levels with benign breast disease and breast density—both associated with breast cancer risk. They found that benign breast disease was not significantly influenced by diet between the ages 10 to 14. They are now evaluating the association between diet and breast density in young women using DXA scanning—a low-radiation imaging technology that is used to measure body composition and is well suited for breast density measurement. It is well-established that having a higher breast density increases breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women, and estrogen levels may influence breast density. Dr. Kensler’s studies will determine if this is the case for young women also.
In addition to their ongoing work, Dr. Kensler’s team plans to include studies on the impact of the composition of the gut microbiome—which is altered by dietary factors—on breast density and estrogen levels in women under 40. They hope to identify ways to reduce breast cancer risk by modifying breast density through changes to the diet and the gut microbiome.
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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