We know that the amount of the hormone oestrogen that a woman is exposed to over her lifetime affects her risk of breast cancer. However, many factors can influence oestrogen exposure, and some of these are difficult to accurately measure. We need to find objective ways to calculate a woman’s exposure to oestrogen over her lifetime in order to predict her breast cancer risk more accurately.
A woman’s exposure to oestrogen is affected by many factors, including the age she started her periods, pregnancy, her age at menopause, whether she has taken contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, and her weight. ‘Epigenetic’ changes are chemical alterations to the DNA which exist in almost all cells of the body. These changes can be caused by external factors during a person’s life, and are like ‘fingerprints’ that are left on the DNA by these factors.
In this project, Dr Flanagan will identify epigenetic changes in the DNA of cells from blood donated by nearly 4,000 women, who also provided detailed information on their lifestyle, looking for these ‘fingerprints’ which give clues about their lifetime exposure to oestrogen.
What difference will this project make?
Dr Flanagan will identify epigenetic changes in the DNA of white blood cells which could be developed into a blood test to allow doctors to measure objectively how much oestrogen a woman has been exposed to in her lifetime. His work could make assessing a woman’s risk of breast cancer more accurate, ensuring that they can choose the most appropriate risk-reducing measures to lower their chances of developing the disease.
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