Introduction: Over 90% of breast cancers occur sporadically with no obvious hereditary factors at play, therefore highlighting the need for biomarkers that can identify women who are predisposed to developing breast cancer. DNA methylation of the BRCA1 promoter region is detectable at low levels in the peripheral blood of some women. This phenomenon is referred to as constitutional BRCA1 methylation. Peripheral blood methylation of the BRCA1 gene has been identified as a predisposition factor to the development of BRCA1 methylated tumors. We performed a case-control study to assess peripheral blood BRCA1 methylation from healthy women, and from women with breast cancer. This study aimed to establish the frequency of peripheral blood methylation of the BRCA1 gene in women with and without breast cancer, to further our understanding of the role of constitutional BRCA1 methylation in breast cancer predisposition.

Methods: Constitutional BRCA1 methylation was assessed in peripheral blood DNA of breast cancer patients and healthy women. Whole blood DNA was obtained from healthy women (n=327 controls) and women with breast cancer (n=300 cases) as part of the LifePool Project. Blood was collected on the day of mammography with BreastScreen Victoria. We used a probe-based droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) assay designed to quantify methylated and unmethylated alleles at the BRCA1 promoter region.

Results: Previous research using less-sensitive methodologies has reported a BRCA1 methylation frequency of 2-4% in peripheral blood of healthy women. In this study, there was no significant difference in the observed BRCA1 methylation frequency between cases and controls (6.6% and 6.4% respectively). The discrepancy between our observed methylation frequencies and previously reported data can be attributed to the higher sensitivity of the ddPCR methodology. Nevertheless, the level of BRCA1 methylation in cases was significantly higher than the level of methylation observed in controls, consistent with previous studies. In addition, the frequency of BRCA1 methylation was higher in women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 50 compared to women diagnosed over 50 years old (average methylation frequency = 12.5% and 5.3% respectively).

Conclusions: ddPCR methodology enabled accurate quantification of methylated BRCA1 alleles in peripheral blood DNA down to less than 0.1%. In this selected population of women undergoing mammography, there was no difference in the frequency of detectable BRCA1 methylation between cases and controls. Once age was considered, detectable BRCA1 methylation showed an association with age of onset. Tumours for the women with breast cancer will be retrieved and tested for BRCA1 methylation, to further examine the link between the methylation observed in peripheral blood DNA and development of a BRCA1-methylated tumor.

Citation Format: Basant Ebaid, Hongdo Do, Jia Min Pang, Lisa Devereux, Alexander Dobrovic. A case-control study of constitutional BRCA1 methylation in a mammographically screened cohort [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2019; 2019 Mar 29-Apr 3; Atlanta, GA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2019;79(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 823.