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The path of women in scientific research

· The interview ·

Prof. Brisken is a brilliant researcher in the biomedical field, in which she has managed to affirm herself in prestigious research institutions in the United States, Germany and Switzerland, where she is internationally recognized for her work on the endocrine control of the development of the mammary gland and on the role of hormones and compounds with hormonal activity in carcinogenesis. The aim of her studies is to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms through which exposure to endogenous and exogenous hormones contributes to the development of breast tumours, so as to be able to prevent and treat this pathology.

Prof. Brisken, how do you explain the difficulty that women scientists have in reaching the top in their careers?

One of the many portraits in which the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler recounts the sufferings of his beloved Valentine Godé-Darel who died of cancer

In my work situation women in charge of scientific research institutions are effectively a minority, while the number of those with doctorates is more or less equivalent to the figure for men.

I personally don’t believe, as is often said, that this depends on the greater involvement of women in personal and family problems. I myself had three children and this certainly didn’t jeopardize my commitment to my work or diminish the quality of my studies, even though to reconcile the needs of the family with those of work it is necessary to have great determination and to be very well organized.

Rather, experience tells me that the fact of being a minority automatically excludes us women from dialogue with our male colleagues on an equal footing, since men usually have greater confidence in exercising authority and stronger personal ambitions. This means all too often that the voices of women are not listened to.

In addition, men generally excel in making themselves heard and somewhat less in listening to the voices of others.

The problem of being able to project their image and to obtain sponsorship for their activities is so important for their careers that many women take courses in the strategy of communication, in order to compete with their male colleagues on a level playing field.

Two problems emerge from this situation: the first is that women who have greater motivation in furthering their careers tend to masculinize themselves; the second, which is more serious, is that their scientific profiles and the importance of their research work may pass to a secondary level as regards their ability to present it.

How do you judge the quality of the research proposed and developed by women?

After many years working in biomedical research, I can say that in this field women propose more innovative and important projects for the quality of life which more closely adhere to people’s needs. However, the importance of their objectives is not always rewarded by the system of publication and thus of evaluation for access to funding. In addition, I have noted that women have greater openness to interdisciplinarity, and this involves the capacity for knowing how to listen and to take on board the viewpoints of their colleagues. In this way they have an advantage, since the ever greater complexity of the problems to be solved demands a multidisciplinary approach.

For all these reasons we are in great need of female talents in science.

You are concerned with a very important health problem for women, breast cancer. What is the aim of your studies?

Frida Kahlo, “Roots” (1943)

Breast cancer, which is the most common tumour and the second cause of death in women, is constantly increasing and we are wondering why. The first step is to study the role of hormones in the mammary gland in physiological conditions and in carcinogenesis.

The objective was to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms through which exposure to endogenous and exogenous hormones contributes to the development of breast cancer in order to be able to prevent and treat this pathology.

Until two centuries ago breast cancer mainly affected women religious because the incidence of this tumour is linked to the woman’s reproductive history and increases with the number of menstrual cycles, whereas a first pregnancy at a young age and breastfeeding are protective factors (the protective effect diminishes with the passage of time and ceases to apply after the age of thirty).

Part of the increase in breast cancer which is recorded today in our society is due to changes in the life style of women including fewer and later pregnancies, with a consequent increase in menstrual cycles. This is accentuated by an earlier onset of puberty, probably due to various environmental factors.

Above all, however, the increase of breast tumours, as likewise of other hormone-dependent tumours (cancer of the endometrium, of the prostate and of the testicles), follows a process parallel to the presence in the environment of commonly used chemical substances, some persistent, which can alter the normal functioning of hormones: they are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (edc) or endocrine disruptors.

Can you give us an example of such substances?

A compound that gives rise to concern is bisphenol a, (bpa), used for the production of plastics, which is present in various body fluids in 90 per cent of the population, who are exposed to it not only through the food they eat but also through cutaneous absorption. bpa can reach high concentrations in the uterus too and in fact has also been found in the blood of the umbilical cord.

The problem is clearly illustrated by the paradigmatic history of diethylstilbestrol (des), a synthetic molecule with an oestrogen-like action used from the 1940s to the 1960s in the United States to prevent miscarriage. From the early 1950s to the end of the 1960s numerous studies were published which demonstrated the non-effectiveness of des as an anti-abortifacient but only in 1975 was it withdrawn from the market. It is estimated that in the United States alone three million women took des between 1941 and 1971.

A report was published in 1971 which showed that tumours of the vagina developed in adolescence in the female progeny of mothers who had taken this substance. Until then such cases had been extremely rare, occurring only in advanced years.

Women exposed to des in the uterus are now between 50 and 60 years old, the age of the greatest risk of breast cancer and it has been observed that the percentage of them developing this type of tumour is almost double that of those who were not exposed to it in their uterine life.

In addition, an increase has been observed in the incidence of genital malformations and infertility in the offspring, both female and male, of women exposed to des.

As a result, returning to bpa, there is a concern that exposure in the uterus to this compound might increase the risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

What lessons may we draw from this research?

We must first of all ask ourselves how on earth our societies can tolerate this state of affairs. Every year new substances are pumped into the environment, to which we are all exposed in our daily life: multi-purpose plastics, materials for thermal isolation, fire-resistant products, cosmetics, coverings for food containers. Many of these substances increase in the population the risk of developing pathologies such as tumours and of provoking disturbances of fertility and alterations in endocrinal or reproductive development. In addition, the risk is propagated through the effects of these substances on reproduction and on pre- and post-natal development, in successive generations too.

Our knowledge that developing embryos are already exposed to the harmful effects of substances pumped into the environment makes us deeply responsible for the generations of the future.

In the face of this situation we have an urgent need to find a balance between financial interests and public health.

What is a possible positive consequence of your research into women’s health?

We are currently developing a project I am keen on precisely because it brings us concretely close to solving individuals’ problems. It involves the possibility of personalizing the treatment of breast cancer by testing the response to treatments of tissue taken from the patient.

Thus patients can receive personalized treatment which laboratory tests have shown to be more effective and the results are most encouraging.

And your projects for the future?

My husband, Prof. Gian Paolo Dotto, and I founded together the International Cancer Prevention Institute (icpi), a virtual institute for the prevention of tumours. Cancer research today is focused above all on treatment, whereas what we want is to promote lines of research oriented to prevention, and to offer through this foundation opportunities for training young researchers in this field.

Our objective is also to provide the public and decision-makers with better information, since we are convinced that good environmental and social policies can translate into a lower risk of developing cancer.

Mariella Balduzzi

Cathrin Brisken

Cathrin Brisken is Associate Professor of Sciences of Life at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (epfl) and a member of various international committees and associations for the study of tumours.

She gained a degree in medicine and a doctorate in biophysics at the Georg August University in Göttingen. She completed her training in the biology of tumours and embarked on her career as a researcher at prestigious institutions in the United States (the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Cambridge, ma, The Cancer Center of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston), and in Switzerland at the Institute for Experimental Research on Cancer (isrec). She is internationally recognized for her work on the endocrinal control of the development of the mammary gland and on the role of hormones and of compounds with hormonal activity in carcinogenesis.

Cathrin Brisken is married and has three children.

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