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Five eminent Boston researchers will officially join forces Thursday to tackle one of the most perplexing questions about breast cancer: Why do so many people with no family history of the disease get it?

The researchers will examine whether common man-made chemicals are responsible for the disease, which increasingly strikes men and women.

In 2014, breast cancer will be the second-most-diagnosed form of cancer and the third- deadliest form of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. But unlike with some other cancers, the vast majority of breast cancer diagnoses — more than 90 percent — cannot be traced to a hereditary cause, the institute said.

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"I think what we're going to be doing is adding the weight of evidence that environmental chemicals contribute significantly to [breast] cancer, more than most people expect," said David H. Sherr, of the Boston University School of Public Health. He is leading the team.

The research is backed by a three-year, $5 million grant from ART beCAUSE, a breast cancer foundation.

Ellie Anbinder, its cofounder, spearheaded the funding effort. She survived breast cancer but was left wondering why she developed it in the first place.

"The bottom line is that there is not a lot of coordinated research around the environment and breast cancer," she said. "We felt that in order to have some kind of strong impact on the field of environmental causes of breast cancer we needed to put together a large project."

Most cancer research is dedicated to developing drugs or cures, Sherr said. But the Boston consortium's ultimate goal is finding a way to prevent the cancer from ever taking hold.

Sherr studies receptors in cells that detect chemicals in their vicinity. Fellow researchers Gail Sonenshein, of Tufts University School of Medicine, and Dr. David C. Seldin, of the Boston University School of Medicine, will examine signaling pathways that tell a cell when and how to change once it interacts with a chemical.

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Charlotte Kuperwasser, also of Tufts, is a pioneer of the theory of cancer stem cells.

Rounding out the team is Stefano Monti, of BU, a computational biologist who uses algorithms to project how cells will react to certain chemicals.


Todd Feathers can be reached at todd.feathers@globe.com.