Despite all the research and therapies, more and more American women are suffering and dying from breast cancer.

It now strikes one of nine American women.I happen to have had a direct influence on federal research policy on the possible relationship between diet and breast cancer when I was staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition almost two decades ago.

Hearings on the relationship between diet and chronic diseases, including breast cancer, ultimately led to the federal adoption of dietary goals.

The goals were accepted after considerable opposition in the government to changing research priorities to account for the key role that nutrition and diet play in the long development of disease.

One of the most recalcitrant agencies was the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The latest evidence of this recalcitrance was, oddly, the proud publication this month in the cancer institute's journal that rats fed high-fiber diets developed a lot fewer breast tumors than rats that ate no fiber.

Unfortunately, this study demonstrates only that the institute seems more interested in studying rats than in living, breathing women.

But there was cause for optimism when the new NIH director, Bernadine Healy, announced a bold $500 million initiative to study women's health.

Research on the link between diet and breast cancer should be a top priority.

Despite efforts by scientists and women's groups over the years to get the National Cancer Institute to do a large study on diet and breast cancer - comparable to what the National Heart Institute has done on men and coronary artery disease - the institute has refused to do so.

The most egregious refusal occurred a few months ago after a Senate committee instructed the institute "to cooperatively and aggressively move forward" with a study conducted on women.

"The committee is disturbed to learn that more emphasis is not being placed on prevention and education programs within the NCI," the Senate committee said.

The institute's scientists and the head of prevention programs approved the idea for a large study and presented it to the institute's advisory board, which is dominated by laboratory scientists primarily interested in basic, not applied, research.

The board rejected the recommendation on the grounds that the study would cost too much, take too long and might not be worth it. (No one raised these objections when the issue was studying heart disease in men.)

Instead, the board approved minimal start-up expenses with no commitment to a large study.

The NIH should direct the cancer institute to go ahead with this study. If it does, maybe a decade from now, we will have the answers we need for our mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, not just for the rats.