Funded by Breakthrough Breast Cancer and conducted at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, the Generations Study is the world’s largest and most comprehensive study of its kind looking into the root causes of breast cancer, following more than 113,000 women over 40 years.

Preventing breast cancer

Around 50,000 women and 350 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK, but experts believe that around half of these cases could, in principle, be prevented, if the causes were better understood.

The study’s aim is to make this a reality by following women across the UK of different ages and from a range of backgrounds over a significant period of their lives, and carrying out a detailed examination of the various lifestyle and environmental factors that might influence breast cancer risk. These factors include exercise, alcohol intake and even the kind of jobs they do. Participants also give blood samples to provide information about their genetics and hormonal characteristics.

The project has brought together some of the brightest minds in breast cancer research from around the world and, in a relatively short period of time, has begun to help to unravel some of the biggest questions about how we can prevent the disease.

Professor Anthony Swerdlow, Professor of Epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and co-leader of the study, said:

“Over the past 10 years, the Breakthrough Generations Study has contributed to the great increase that has occurred in what we know about the causation of breast cancer. 

“We have contributed to the discovery of genetic markers associated with a higher chance of developing the disease, helped understand how lifestyle factors affect breast cancer risk, and uncovered more about hormone-related changes, such as the onset of puberty and menopause, that relate to breast cancer.”

Find out more about Professor Swerdlow and the Generations Study in The Observer and on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

Leading the way

Chris Askew, CEO of Breakthrough Breast Cancer said:

“Whilst we are learning more and more each day about various factors that affect breast cancer risk, it is not yet possible to predict with certainty who will get breast cancer, and for women who have been diagnosed with the disease, we can’t yet say for sure what caused it. That’s why Breakthrough is leading the way to find the answers to these questions and shining a spotlight on prevention as part of the strategic focus of our research work.

“We’re now entering a new era of breast cancer research, one where, as well as focusing on treating and managing breast cancer once it’s developed, we’re setting our sights on preventing it altogether.

“We predict that by 2050, we will be able to prevent 30% of breast cancers and within five years, we’ll be able to accurately predict a women’s lifetime risk of breast cancer, based on her genetic, lifestyle and environmental profile.”

Three generations

Caroline Holmes, along with her mother Judith and her daughter Sarah, are all study participants. First Caroline, and then Judith, were both diagnosed with breast cancer after joining.

Caroline said:

“There are three generations of my family taking part in the study, and that says it all really. It’s about following women at all stages of their lives.

“Cancer brings chaos to families and we have the potential not only to change the way that breast cancer is treated in the future, but also to ultimately one day remove the worry altogether, and that’s really exciting.”

Mike Barry, Director Plan A at Marks and Spencer who cover the on-going analysis costs of the study each year said:

“Our partnership with Breakthrough Breast Cancer is now in its 13th year and we are incredibly proud of the work we do together. From the efforts of our incredible teams of employees who tirelessly fundraise for the cause to our support of The Breakthrough Generations Study, this partnership is one of our most successful to date.

“Removing the shadow of breast cancer from the lives of future generations of women isn’t a dream, it’s possible and we believe that Breakthrough’s vital research work is making a real difference to the thousands of our customers and employees affected by breast cancer.”

Generations Study supporters

Sarah Brown, study participant and President of Theirworld, said:

“When I first found out about the Breakthrough Generations Study I knew straightaway that I wanted to sign up. Just like the tens of thousands of other women, I am proud to be taking part in this important research work that will lead us towards a better future and stop this terrible disease from devastating lives.”

Opera singer Lesley Garrett CBE, who supported the public launch of the study back in 2004, said:

“We will never beat breast cancer with fantastic treatments alone. To reach a point at which we can prevent breast cancer from taking the women we love, the causes of the disease need to be fully understood.

"I’m behind the Breakthrough Generations Study because if we can each play a small part in helping scientists find the causes of breast cancer it will be a wonderful achievement by all of us.”

BBC presenter Katie Derham, who also supported the public launch, said:

"The results of this important study are already so inspiring, and offer so much hope to the sufferers of this cruel disease, and to their families. I was absolutely thrilled to hear about the early successes. It demonstrates powerfully what can be achieved with focus, determination and the generosity of the supporters of Breakthrough Breast Cancer. Just imagine how much more we may be able to discover as the study progresses."

Participants in the study are asked to fill out a detailed lifestyle questionnaire and give periodic blood samples. Such a long-term study is required in order to understand the complex mixture of factors – lifestyle, genetic, environmental and hormonal – which may be involved in the development of breast cancer and which may act at different stages of life.