It could be possible to look for molecular alternations in breast tissue to identify whether a patient is at risk of developing breast cancer, a new study has found. Scientists at University College London (UCL) looked at changes in patient DNA, finding clear evidence that epigenetic alterations play a part in the occurrence of the disease.

There are several key factors that are thought to increase patient risk of developing breast cancer, including a family history of the condition, late entrance into menopause, or starting periods late. The UCL researchers theorized that these factors might alter the genetic programming of cells – something that's known as the epigenome.

The epigenome has control over the DNA sequence, and assigns each cell in the human body its own identity. Alternations in the epigenetic program can cause issue, potentially giving rise to cancerous cells.

In an effort to confirm or disprove this theory, the UCL researchers collected a total of 668 tissue samples, taking cells from women with and without breast cancer. They then used a specially developed statistical analysis tool to study the samples. The findings revealed that the normal tissue directly adjacent to cancerous cells contained tens of thousands of epigenetic alterations.

Furthermore, a large section of the observed variations were enriched in adjacent cancerous tissue. This means that doctors could potentially study epigenetic signatures to identify cells that might be central to future cancer development. It was also found that cases where epigenetic variations were observed were particularly severe, with low likelihoods of patient survival.

Not only does the work provide a greater insight into how breast cancer develops, but it could also lead to new preventative measures, allowing doctors to "switch off" epigenetic defects, preventing cancers from ever occurring.

"These new data show how epigenetic alternations, if detected early enough, could be used to identify women at higher risk of developing breast cancer," said UCL's Professor Andrew Teschendorff. "Since epigenetic alterations are reversible, if offers the potential to design preventative strategies."

The researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: UCL