Blood Relatives of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer risks amplified with high levels of AML methylation

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) What if a simple blood test alerted you years in advance that you had elevated risks of breast cancer? Would you take it? You may have a choice in the near future.

Women who have abnormalities in a white blood cell gene can have as much as twice the risk of developing breast cancer as women without the alteration.

And this mutation can be detected in the blood years before the disease develops.

"Discuss with your doctor how to reduce cancer risks."

A research team in England, led by James M. Flanagan, PhD, of the  Imperial College London, discovered these molecular or so-called epigenetic changes in a gene called AML. 

The mutation had to do with a chemical effect called methylation, which switches genes on and off.

Researchers gathered and evaluated samples of blood from 1,380 women of varying ages. A total of 640 women later developed breast cancer. Particularly vulnerable to the disease were younger women between the ages of 20 and 49.

Those who had the highest levels of methylation impacting the AML gene turned out to be twice as likely to have breast cancer as women who had the lowest methylation levels.

Blood tests were given an average of three years before the cancer developed and as long as 11 years before the diagnosis.

"Our findings indicate that high levels of methylation in the AML...might be a biomarker of breast cancer risk," said Flanagan.

The authors explain, "Epigenetic changes such as DNA methylation could be a biologic indicator of lifetime accumulation of environmental exposures including aging, hormones, ionizing radiation, alcohol, smoking, and traffic particles."

So what does all this mean? We asked dailyRx Contributing Expert, Adam Brufsky, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"This interesting study may form the basis of a test that could one day tell if a woman is more susceptible to breast cancer, allowing us to perhaps take steps to prevent it," Dr. Brufsky told dailyRx.

More research is needed to confirm these findings, according to Flanagan, who hopes to find other genes which may also serve as what he calls "risk markers." The blood test, he says, is 5-10 years away.

The study was published in Cancer Research. 

This research was funded by the Breast Cancer Campaign, National Breast Cancer Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and by the Queensland Cancer Fund, the Cancer Councils of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia and the Cancer Foundation of Western Australia.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 17, 2012
Last Updated:
September 10, 2012