Breast Milk May Identify Breast Cancer Risks

Early risk assessment could prevent breast cancer

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) On the horizon is a non-invasive study that could predict a woman's risk of developing breast cancer by examining cells naturally found in her breast milk.

This test will allow women in their 20s and 30s - who don't usually have mammograms - to find out what their chances are of developing breast cancer later on in life and what they can do to possibly prevent the disease.

The science

In the study, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are looking for evidence of what's known as methylation, a process that silences gene expression.

When methylation takes place, the good, tumor-suppressing proteins are not produced, which makes cancer more likely to occur.

This investigation is looking at three of the approximately 35 genes known to be methylated in breast cancer.

The genes being examined in this study are RASSF1, GSTP1 and SFRP1.

"Early detection could lead to prevention."

Environmental toxicologist Kathleen Arcaro of UMass Amherst, the study's lead investigator, notes that early detection of methylation in breast tissue is a key in preventing cancer.

Changes in gene expression are often thought to be related to environmental exposures.

The good news is that methylation is reversible, so early detection increases treatment options.

So women at higher risk could choose more frequent screening (mammograms) or possibly new treatment options including demethylating drugs, which could prevent the cancer from ever appearing.

The study

Arcaro and colleagues compared methylation levels in cells from biopsied vs. non-biopsied breasts and found greater methylation in the biopsied breast samples.

“This methylation means that the helpful, tumor-suppressing genes are silenced, putting the woman at higher risk of developing breast cancer.”

Looking at a larger panel of genes would allow more accurate risk assessment. Arcaro said.

"A woman might be able to have her breast milk tested when she has a baby at age 25 or 30 and put her mind at ease, or give her an early warning.”

More studies, more knowledge, more options

More studies are needed to expand the number of genes, and long-term studies are now under way with most of the original participants, according to Arcaro.

Because breast milk naturally flows from all the glands in the breast, Arcaro and colleagues’ new method surveys cells from all parts of the tissue.

This makes the test more thorough in assessing risk in many more breast tissues than other methods.

More thorough assessment for most women

Arcaro says she hopes that someday any woman who delivers a baby in a hospital could be screened for breast cancer risk by examining her breast milk.

“We’ll take a little sample of colostrum, and with a totally noninvasive and accurate assay, be able to tell her how her breasts are doing.”

She adds, since 80 percent of women deliver babies, this screening could provide valuable insight to most women at an earlier age when prevention strategies can be sought.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 6, 2011
Last Updated:
April 7, 2011