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Molecular 'clock' could predict risk for developing breast cancer

DALLAS May 14, 2008 A chemical reaction in genes that control breast cancer provides a molecular clock that could one day help researchers more accurately determine a womans risk for developing breast cancer and provide a new approach for treatment, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have found.

In a study published in todays issue of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, scientists from UT Southwestern show that the chemical process, called methylation, is strongly correlated with breast-cancer risk and with precancerous changes in the breast cells.

The researchers determined that methylation acts as a type of biological clock, indicating how many times a cell has divided. This information could aid researchers in determining an individuals cancer risk.

The more a cell has divided, the greater the risk for cancer, said Dr. David Euhus, professor of surgical oncology. Monitoring methylation levels could give researchers a way of seeing how often cells have divided and where a woman stands on that clock. Once the clock reaches a certain hour, breast cancer is more likely to ensue.

During methylation, small molecules called methyl groups attach themselves to a gene and turn off, or silence, the gene.

Previous studies by Dr. Euhus have shown that apparently normal breast cells from women with breast cancer had increased methylation of a tumor-suppressor gene called RASSF1A.

In the current study, Dr. Euhus wanted to see if methylation of RASSF1A and other genes increased over time during the years when the ovaries are actively secreting estrogen and progesterone each month.

Dr. Euhus and his team sampled cells from 164 women women with breast cancer, women at high risk of developing breast cancer, and women with a low risk for the disease. The researchers examined methylation levels of five tumor-suppressor genes whose job is to stop tumors from developing in the brea

Contact: Connie Piloto
UT Southwestern Medical Center

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