BROWN (US)—A new study suggests that epigenetic profiles of breast cancer tumors have a direct association with diet, alcohol, and tumor size. The finding could offer a new way to predict the severity of the disease.

“We undertook this study to help illuminate how diet and environmental factors might contribute to differences observed among breast cancers,” says Brock Christensen, a researcher at Brown University and lead author of the study published in the most recent edition of PLoS Genetics.

Epigenetics refers to the control of patterns of gene expression in cells, which give rise to the necessary differences responsible for creating the complex and interacting tissues in the body.

The study point to the emergence of new biomarkers that researchers hope will give a more detailed view of the environmental factors that contribute to tumor development and could, in the future, provide improvements in diagnostics and treatment decisions—as well as potentially more personalized recommendations to help prevent recurrence.

The researchers measured epigenetic profiles in stage I to IV breast tumors from 162 women, taking a detailed assessment of an individual’s demographic and dietary information, as well as breast cancer tumor characteristics.

The study’s data show the promise of tumor epigenetic signatures to provide more detailed tumor staging, and eventually prediction of prognosis. In particular, the study found that alcohol consumption, folate intake (vitamin B9), and tumor size are each independently associated with epigenetic profiles of tumors.

“By investigating epigenetic patterns in tumors from patients we have extensive lifestyle data on, we are helping to bridge the gap between environmental research and translational research,” says Karl Kelsey, professor of community health at Brown and a contributing author on the paper.

“This study provides a new window for finding environmental links to breast disease,” says John Wiencke, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and the paper’s senior author. “Our work indicates that we will soon have new ways to monitor and assess lifestyle and environmental factors for breast cancer.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

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