UMass’ School of Public Health and Health Sciences receives two-year grant from The National Cancer Institute

By Marleigh Felsenstein

Breast cancer is one of the most studied cancers, and the University of Massachusetts now has a hand in some research.

The UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences has received a two-year, $177,373 grant from the National Cancer Institute to investigate a possible correlation between antidepressant use and breast cancer in women.

The researchers, led by epidemiologist and Assistant Professor Katherine Reeves, will look into whether women taking antidepressants are more likely to get breast cancer based on a hormone known as prolactin, according to a UMass press release. Prolactin, which is secreted by the pituitary gland, has been implicated in the increased risk of breast cancer, and levels in the body may be increased by certain types of antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, according to the release.

“Fifty years ago, antidepressants were uncommon,” Reeves said, noting that antidepressants are now one of the leading drugs.

“Our hope is that the information from this study will help women make informed decisions about treating depression, especially for those already at increased risk of breast cancer for reasons such as family history,” Reeves said in the release.

Besides the possible relationship between breast cancer and antidepressants, there are other factors that go into breast cancer diagnosis, including obesity and lack of physical activity, Reeves said.

Different women have different risk factors based on where they are in the stages of their lives.

Reeves has a personal interest in cancer. Her grandmother had the disease when Reeves was a young girl.

“(Cancer) is normal body processes gone awry,” she said.

Along with Reeves, epidemiologist Sue Hankinson and biostatistician Jin Qian, with geriatric psychiatrist Olivia Okereke at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital will be studying 200,000 women enrolled in the Harvard Nurses Health Study. Some participants have already been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer, but this study will look only at women and their unique risk factors.

“The goal of the study is to look at all things together and find out ‘does it matter?’ We don’t know. We’re hoping our study will help,” Reeves said.

Marleigh Felsenstein can be reached at [email protected]