DNA changes that could clue in on the development of breast cancer are already present in healthy breast tissue, according to a new study.

Molecular alterations in breast tissue can identify whether a woman is at risk for this leading killer, according to researchers from the University College London.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Previous research only pointed to family history, early menstruation, and late menopause as some key risk factors for the disease. These factors, according to the researchers, might alter cells’ genetic programming, also known as epigenome.

The epigenome controls the DNA sequence and “assigns” every cell its own identity. Any alteration in one’s epigenetic program can limit the cells’ ability to differentiate, paving the way for health issues such as cancerous cells.

“These new findings are important in supporting further research into women’s cancer development and prevention,” said (PDF) lead study author Professor Martin Widschwendter. “The application of these altered epigenetic signatures holds the key developing new interventions that could ‘switch off’ this epigenetic defect and hold the key to preventing cancer development.”

The team analyzed 668 breast tissue samples, including normal and cancerous tissue from breast cancer patients. Using a statistical method developed by co-lead author and professor, Andrew Teschendorff, they discovered that normal tissue adjacent to breast cancer is marked by tens to thousands of epigenetic changes.

A huge portion of the observed alterations was enriched in the adjacent cancerous breast tissue, meaning doctors could study epigenetic signatures for identifying cells that might play a central role in the future development of the condition.

Furthermore, cases characterized by epigenetic alterations were especially severe, showing low probability of patient survival. Although Teschendorff asserted that epigenetic changes can be reversed.

“[The data] offers the potential to design preventive strategies,” he said.

In the United States alone, about 1 in 8 women – or about 12 percent – will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Aside from lung cancer, breast cancer death rates in the country are higher than those for any other.

In 2015, there are more than 2.8 million women with a breast cancer history, including those currently undergoing treatment and those who have already been treated.

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