Normal breast tissue DNA methylation differences at regulatory elements are associated with the cancer risk factor age

Kevin C. Johnson
Andres E. Houseman
Jessica E. King
Brock C. Christensen


Background: The underlying biological mechanisms through which epidemiologically defined breast cancer risk factors contribute to disease risk remain poorly understood. Identification of the molecular changes associated with cancer risk factors in normal tissues may aid in determining the earliest events of carcinogenesis and informing cancer prevention strategies. Methods: Here we investigated the impact cancer risk factors have on the normal breast epigenome by analyzing DNA methylation genome-wide (Infinium 450 K array) in cancer-free women from the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank (n = 100). We tested the relation of established breast cancer risk factors, age, body mass index, parity, and family history of disease, with DNA methylation adjusting for potential variation in cell-type proportions. Results: We identified 787 cytosine-guanine dinucleotide (CpG) sites that demonstrated significant associations (Q value <0.01) with subject age. Notably, DNA methylation was not strongly associated with the other evaluated breast cancer risk factors. Age-related DNA methylation changes are primarily increases in methylation enriched at breast epithelial cell enhancer regions (P = 7.1E-20), and binding sites of chromatin remodelers (MYC and CTCF). We validated the age-related associations in two independent populations, using normal breast tissue samples (n = 18) and samples of normal tissue adjacent to tumor tissue (n = 97). The genomic regions classified as age-related were more likely to be regions altered in both pre-invasive (n = 40, P = 3.0E-03) and invasive breast tumors (n = 731, P = 1.1E-13). Conclusions: DNA methylation changes with age occur at regulatory regions, and are further exacerbated in cancer, suggesting that age influences breast cancer risk in part through its contribution to epigenetic dysregulation in normal breast tissue.