UK researchers have published data in the journal Cancer Research showing a strong link between an epigenetic modification of a gene in white blood cells and the risk of breast cancer.
The Breast Cancer Campaign funded scientists examined methylation levels in the ATM gene among 1380 women, of whom 640 went on to develop breast cancer. The highest levels of ATM gene methylation were associated with a two-fold increase in breast cancer risk.
Lead researcher Dr James Flanagan of Imperial College London said that, in addition to the contribution of genetic variation to disease risk: "With this new study we can now also say that epigenetic variation, or differences in how genes are modified, also has a role”. This may be a key genetic mechanism by which environmental influences influence disease risk.
Comment: The hope is that epigenetic data such as this might eventually be used alongside data about DNA sequence variation and other medical and lifestyle information in models to predict more precisely individuals’ future risk of cancer and improve screening and prevention.