Avon Virus & Breast Cancer Research Consortium

As part of our research grant program, the Avon Foundation has recognized the need to invest in research to definitively answer a question that has long been debated by scientists: Could a virus or bacterial infection play a role in causing any of the 5-6 characterized forms of breast cancer? Surprisingly, a definitive answer has remained elusive.

So in 2012, we launched the Avon Virus & Breast Cancer Research Consortium. The Consortium’s goal is to ensure that Avon Foundation-funded researchers provide each other with research progress updates; foster the sharing of protocols, research tools, and resources, including tissue collections; and accelerate progress toward definitively answering the question about the role of viruses in breast cancer. To date, Avon has invested $6 million in virus-related projects through 2014.

The Consortium, comprised of 16 projects and principal investigators funded by Avon, brings together researchers from a broad array of disciplines, including pathology, cell biology, molecular genetics, virology, and immunology. Investigators are working in a coordinated fashion, meeting weekly by webinar and conference call, to improve and build on prior research.

  • Groups are sharing samples and using larger sample sizes than prior studies.
  • The Consortium is examining all known viruses and bacterial infections and looking at their association with breast cancers by subtype. The four major subtypes of breast cancer are determined by what proteins the tumor cells express. They are luminal A, luminal B, triple negative breast cancer and HER2+ breast cancer. The Consortium is also looking at uncommon, but aggressive breast cancer such as inflammatory breast cancer.
  • The Consortium is conducting a blinded, validation study whereby one scientific team at Johns Hopkins University is making a collection of breast tumors (50 different tumors), and including controls from cell culture known to express certain viruses. These samples are then sent to six different labs around the country for blinded assessment for the presence of virus and bacteria. If the labs identify the viruses in the controls, know to be in the sample, it will validate that their techniques can accurately identify the tumors and viruses.
  • The Consortium is taking a Big Science, Big Data approach to determine if viruses cause breast cancer. The Big Science, Big Data project is looking at 1,000 breast cancer samples that have had “whole genome” sequencing analysis and is looking within this data to see if viruses or infectious agents are present.

The research into Human Papilloma Virus and Hepatitis B Virus that led to the development of vaccines for cervical and liver cancers respectively, attests to the power of prevention and the value of investigating initiating agents. We believe the Avon Consortium will determine the role, if any, of viruses and infectious agents as initiating events in breast cancer.