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01 May 2012

Breast Cancer Can Be Detected Years Before, According To Study

Dr James Flanagan, a Breast Cancer Campaign scientific fellow in the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, has uncovered the first strong evidence that molecular or 'epigenetic' changes in a gene can be associated with breast cancer risk and can be detected many years before breast cancer develops.

The research, which is published today in Cancer Research, involved 640 women with breast cancer and 741 controls who enrolled in three previous studies, the earliest of which began in 1992. The researchers analysed blood samples that the women donated on average three years before being diagnosed with breast cancer to find out whether the alteration of single genes by a process called methylation can predict whether women have an increased breast cancer risk.

Dr Flanagan found that the women with the highest level of methylation on one area of a gene called ATM were twice as likely to get breast cancer as women with the lowest level. This result was particularly clear in blood samples taken from women under the age of 60.

Importantly, because this is the first study using blood taken on average three years before diagnosis and in some cases up to eleven years, it shows that the genes were not altered because of active cancer in the body or by treatments for cancer, which has been a problem with previous studies that took blood after diagnosis.

Dr James Flanagan said: "These findings provide strong evidence that looking at this type of epigenetic alteration (methylation) on individual genes could be used as a blood test to help assess breast cancer risk. When used in combination with other risk assessment tools such as genetic testing and risk factor profiling, this simple blood test could identify those at higher risk, helping doctors to monitor and one day maybe even prevent breast cancer ever developing.

"The findings now need rigorous testing in many more individuals and many more genes that contribute to a personís risk profile need to be identified, as this is just one gene that makes up a small component."

(CD/GK)



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