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NIH study offers insight into why cancer incidence increases with age
Date:2/3/2014

The accumulation of age-associated changes in a biochemical process that helps control genes may be responsible for some of the increased risk of cancer seen in older people, according to a National Institutes of Health study.

Scientists have known for years that age is a leading risk factor for the development of many types of cancer, but why aging increases cancer risk remains unclear. Researchers suspect that DNA methylation, or the binding of chemical tags, called methyl groups, onto DNA, may be involved. Methyl groups activate or silence genes, by affecting interactions between DNA and the cell's protein-making machinery.

Zongli Xu, Ph.D., and Jack Taylor, M.D., Ph.D., researchers from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, identified DNA methylation sites across the human genome that changed with age. They demonstrated that a subset of those sites the ones that become increasingly methylated with advancing age are also disproportionately methylated in a variety of human cancers. Their findings were published online in the journal Carcinogenesis.

"You can think of methylation as dust settling on an unused switch, which then prevents the cell from turning on certain genes," Taylor said. "If a cell can no longer turn on critical developmental programs, it might be easier for it to become a cancer cell."

Xu and Taylor made the discovery using blood samples from participants in the Sister Study, a nationwide research effort to find the environmental and genetic causes of breast cancer and other diseases. More than 50,000 sisters of women who have had breast cancer are participating in the study.

The researchers analyzed blood samples from 1,000 women, using a microarray that contained 27,000 specific methylation sites. Nearly one-third of the sites showed increased DNA methylation in association with age. They then looked at three additional data sets from smalle
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Contact: Robin Arnette
arnetter@niehs.nih.gov
919-541-5143
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Source:Eurekalert

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