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Research Highlight | May 19, 2020

Researchers identify how hormones and aging affect breast cancer in largest study of its kind

A new study by a team of researchers partly funded by the TFRI is shedding new light on the role that age-related changes in estrogen play in the development of breast cancer, providing further insight into the relationship between age and breast cancer.

The study, published in Nature Cancer, was based on the analysis of 7,000 cancer tissues, making it the largest of its kind. 

“What this study is doing for the first time is really finding out how much of our genomes are affected by estrogen and how much is possibly affected by other factors during aging,” says Dr. Sam Aparicio (BC Cancer and University of British Columbia). “What the study set out to do was to try and separate those two things.”

The study also highlights how age affects the some of the diagnostic biomarkers that pathologists use to assess breast cancers during treatment planning. Among the novel findings is that of a protein that gives cells memory of their identity, which was found to be regulated by estrogen -- a key finding that may open new understanding of how breast cancers arise.

The study breaks down the degree to which breast cancer is affected by a reduction of estrogen and what is due to other natural aging factors that occur within cells. By teasing this information out of a large set of data on a completely uniform scale, researchers are in a better position to understand the different ways that aging contributes to breast cancer. The implications of these learnings are far reaching.

“Age is so clearly a factor in the way genes get expressed in our lifetimes it means that perhaps we need to look more closely at the way we incorporate age into diagnostic testing,” says Dr. Aparicio. “It points to this being specifically important for estrogen-related factors which we didn’t quite appreciate before.”

Another unique factor uncovered by this research was the finding of a small number of genes that appear to be estrogen-regulated in lung cancers, an avenue that will require further research to better understand.


Age-correlated protein and transcript expression in breast cancer and normal breast tissues is dominated by host endocrine effects



This study was partly funded by a Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in New vistas on cancer biology and treatment: conceptual advancements from the forme fruste project