Breast cancer clusters within families but genetic factors identified to date explain only a portion of this clustering. Lower global DNA methylation in white blood cells (WBC) has been associated with increased breast cancer risk. We examined whether WBC DNA methylation varies by extent of breast cancer family history in unaffected women from high-risk breast cancer families. We evaluated DNA methylation levels in LINE-1, Alu and Sat2 in 333 cancer-free female family members of the New York site of the Breast Cancer Family Registry, the minority of which were known BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation carriers. We used generalized estimated equation models to test for differences in DNA methylation levels by extent of their breast cancer family history after adjusting for age. All unaffected women had at least one sister affected with breast cancer. LINE-1 and Sat2 DNA methylation levels were lower in individuals with 3 or more (3+) first-degree relatives with breast cancer relative to women with only one first-degree relative. For LINE-1, Alu, and Sat2, having 3+ affected first-degree relatives was associated with a decrease of 23.4% (95%CI = -46.8%, 0.1%), 17.9% (95%CI = -39.5%, 3.7%) and 11.4% (95% CI = -20.3%, -2.5%), respectively, relative to individuals with only one affected first-degree relative, but the results were only statistically significant for Sat2. Individuals having an affected mother had 17.9% lower LINE-1 DNA methylation levels (95% CI = -28.8%, -7.1%) when compared with those not having an affected mother. No associations were observed for Alu or Sat2 by maternal breast cancer status. If replicated, these results indicate that lower global WBC DNA methylation levels in families with extensive cancer histories may be one explanation for the clustering of cancers in these families. Family clustering of disease may reflect epigenetic as well as genetic and shared environmental factors.
Keywords: DNA methylation; LINE-1; Sat2; breast cancer; family history; white blood cells.