Epigenetic research in breast cancer

15 Nov, 2021
 
Dong-Xu Liu
Dong-Xu Liu

The impact of environmental and behavioural factors on the expression of genes associated with breast cancer, is the subject of a new research programme led by AUT.

The International Breast Cancer Consortium for Epigenetic Discovery will be announced by Associate Professor Dong-Xu Liu at the opening of the AUT-hosted Breast Cancer Research Symposium this Friday.

Epigenetics is the study of environment and behaviours that can cause changes in the way genes work. Unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequence, but they can alter how the body reads the DNA sequence.

Associate Professor Liu who chairs the New Zealand Association of Breast Cancer Research says globally this cancer is the most diagnosed, with New Zealand and Australia having the highest incidence rates in the world.  In Aotearoa New Zealand, the problem is worse for Māori women who experience a much higher incidence rate and worse treatment outcomes than non-Māori.

Decades of research has shown that epigenetic or environmental and behavioural factors are important modifiable determinants of breast cancer risk, says Associate Professor Liu.

“Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells resulting from mutations of the DNA sequence, as well as modifications, caused by epigenetic factors. The DNA sequence is like an instruction sheet for what gene will be made. Epigenetic factors can affect the body’s ability to read those instructions, effectively switching the production line for the gene on or off.”

Associate-Professor Liu says past cancer research has focused on the identification of cancer-causing gene mutations and amplifications. However, there is now a body of convincing evidence to support the premise that epigenetic regulation of cancer-associated genes is a promising biomarker for the early detection of cancer, as well as tumour prognosis, and treatment response. Research also shows that epigenetic regulations are linked to a pre-disposition of individuals of certain ethnicity to early or more aggressive cancers.

“To explore the contribution of environmental and behavioural factors to breast cancer in Australia and New Zealand, especially in Māori people, we at the New Zealand Association of Breast Cancer Research have decided to establish an International Breast Cancer Consortium for Epigenetic Discovery. The consortium will call for government support for epigenetic research on breast cancer and aims to construct the epigenetic profiles of 1000 breast cancer patients at its initial stage.”

With the advent of next generation sequencing technology, especially Whole Genome sequencing technology, it is now possible to characterize global epigenetic patterns of cancer samples.

Associate Professor Liu says the groups research will determine the epigenetic signatures of breast cancer that are associated with high incidence, the distinctive patterns between Māori and non-Māori New Zealanders, the epigenetic biomarkers for breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and an understanding of the underlying mechanism of epigenetic modifications in the progression of breast cancer.

“To our best knowledge, no studies have investigated the epigenetic profiles of breast cancer in New Zealand.”

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