Methylation 'note' on gene tags breast cancer spread

Once breast cancer has spread or metastasized beyond the original tumor, the chance of survival falls. The discovery of an epigenetic marker, described by the researchers from Cancer Research UK as a "Post-it note" on the gene, could give the heads-up on those women whose cancer is more likely to spread, allowing them to be monitored more closely and treated earlier, improving their chances of fighting the disease.

Epigenetics is the body's way of controlling gene expression--it adds tags, including methyl groups, which note which genes the cell should switch on or off. The researchers, based at Imperial College London, looked at the methylation tags on the gene for calcium ion channels, the channels that allow calcium in and out of the cell. They found more methylation on the cells from patients' breast cancers that went on to relapse and spread, and no methylation on the healthy calls. The research was published in the British Journal of Cancer.

The lead author, Dr. Carlo Palmieri, a Cancer Research UK scientist at Imperial College London, said: "Methylation of the gene could be used to flag up breast cancer patients who have a greater chance of the disease spreading--helping doctors decide what treatment plan would be most effective."

The team's next step is to carry out larger studies in more women with breast cancer to see whether this could practically be used as a test.

- read the press release
- see the abstract