Breast cancer may be spotted years earlier thanks to discovery of biomarker

Researchers from Imperial College London have found a breast cancer biomarker in blood. This opens up the possibility of a test which could lead to early diagnosis of the disease.

The researchers found that breast cancer is linked with lower levels of DNA methylation.

According to Imperial College, ‘DNA methylation is the process by which methyl groups are added to the DNA, modifying its function and regulating how much of a gene gets made into proteins, something that is essential for normal cell development’.

This suggests that lower than normal methylation of white blood cell DNA could be predictive of an increased breast cancer risk. Women found to have low levels of methylation could benefit from preventative treatments such as tamoxifen and raloxifene.

The researchers analysed studies in which blood samples were taken from healthy women who were monitored for an average period of nine years. Those who developed breast cancer during this time had a lower level of DNA methylation in their white blood cells.

The scientists behind this research hope that in the future they will be able to change methylation patterns.

Dr James Flanagan, the study’s author, says: ‘There is a possibility that we may find ways in which you can modify your epigenetic risk, so that fewer people develop cancer in the first place.’ (Epigenetic refers to non-genetic factors affecting genes.)

This study observed the link but failed to discover why methylation patterns observed in blood cell DNA are associated with breast cancer. But Dr Flanagan remains optimistic:

‘This study shows the importance of investigating the epigenetics of breast cancer risk and of continuing to fund research in this particular area.

‘This novel and exciting topic has the potential to show how lifestyle and environmental factors influence one’s risk of developing breast cancer. Crucially, epigenetic patterns are modifiable, meaning that, unlike genetic risk, there is a possibility that we may find ways in which you can modify your epigenetic risk, so that fewer people develop cancer in the first place.’