Possible Blood Test to Help Predict Breast Cancer
May 2, 2012

Blood Test Could Help Predict Breast Cancer

Image Credit: Photos.com


Connie K. Ho for RedOrbit.com

A new study finds that breast cancer can possibly be predicted with a genetic test, years before the cancer develops. It would be in the form of a blood test to help see how genes are changed by environmental factors like alcohol and hormones. The test is still in development, but could be of great use in the future.

The experiment, published in the journal Cancer Research, focused on the study of epigenetics. Scientists examined the blood samples of 1,380 women of different ages, 640 of whom later developed breast cancer. The blood tests were done about three years before the diagnosis. The research team found a strong correlation between the risk of having breast cancer and the change in a gene called ATM that´s found on white blood cells.

BBC News reports that one in five women is thought to have this “genetic switch” called methylation. Women who had the highest risk of methylation had double the chance of developing breast cancer as compared to those who had the lowest levels of methylation. In some cases, high levels of methylation were observed 11 years before breast cancer was diagnosed.

"We know that genetic variation contributes to a person's risk of disease. With this new study we can now also say that epigenetic variation, or differences in how genes are modified, also has a role,” explained Dr. James Flanagan, a Breast Cancer Campaign scientific fellow at Imperial College London, in an interview with the BBC. "We hope that this research is just the beginning of our understanding about the epigenetic component of breast cancer risk and in the coming years we hope to find many more examples of genes that contribute to a person's risk. The challenge will be how to incorporate all of this new information into the computer models that are currently used for individual risk prediction."

The findings allow the researchers to look into the effects of the ATM gene, which also has links to other cancers like lymphoma and leukemia.

"So far we have found alterations in one small region of a gene that appear to associate with risk of disease, and so the next step with this epigenetic research is a genome-wide approach to try and find all the associated genes,” remarked Flanagan in an article by The Guardian.

Based on the study, the research team believes that a blood test could be factored in with other information, like family history and presence of other known cancer genes, to help those who would be at risk for breast cancer.

"This study gives us a fascinating glimpse of the future and the promise that the emerging field of epigenetics holds. But it's too early to say exactly how these particular changes might affect our ability to detect who is likely to develop certain types of cancer,” commented Laura Bell, Cancer Research UK, in the BBC article. "With further studies, scientists will increase our knowledge of how genetic switches like this interplay together to affect breast cancer risk, with the hope that one day this could lead to a blood test that could help predict a woman's chance of getting the disease."

Last month, breast cancer was found to be not one but ten different diseases; this new piece of research adds new knowledge to the unraveling puzzle regarding cancer.

"Dr Flanagan's research into epigenetics is so exciting because it suggests that there is every possibility the risk of developing breast cancer could be decided many decades in advance,” noted Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign (www.breastcancercampaign.org), in an article by The Telegraph. "By piecing together how this happens, we can look at ways of preventing the disease and detecting it earlier to give people the best possible chance of survival."