DNA methylation changes in response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy are associated with breast cancer survival

Breast Cancer Res. 2022 Jun 24;24(1):43. doi: 10.1186/s13058-022-01537-9.


Background: Locally advanced breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease with respect to response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NACT) and survival. It is currently not possible to accurately predict who will benefit from the specific types of NACT. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism known to play an important role in regulating gene expression and may serve as a biomarker for treatment response and survival. We investigated the potential role of DNA methylation as a prognostic marker for long-term survival (> 5 years) after NACT in breast cancer.

Methods: DNA methylation profiles of pre-treatment (n = 55) and post-treatment (n = 75) biopsies from 83 women with locally advanced breast cancer were investigated using the Illumina HumanMethylation450 BeadChip. The patients received neoadjuvant treatment with epirubicin and/or paclitaxel. Linear mixed models were used to associate DNA methylation to treatment response and survival based on clinical response to NACT (partial response or stable disease) and 5-year survival, respectively. LASSO regression was performed to identify a risk score based on the statistically significant methylation sites and Kaplan-Meier curve analysis was used to estimate survival probabilities using ten years of survival follow-up data. The risk score developed in our discovery cohort was validated in an independent validation cohort consisting of paired pre-treatment and post-treatment biopsies from 85 women with locally advanced breast cancer. Patients included in the validation cohort were treated with either doxorubicin or 5-FU and mitomycin NACT.

Results: DNA methylation patterns changed from before to after NACT in 5-year survivors, while no significant changes were observed in non-survivors or related to treatment response. DNA methylation changes included an overall loss of methylation at CpG islands and gain of methylation in non-CpG islands, and these changes affected genes linked to transcription factor activity, cell adhesion and immune functions. A risk score was developed based on four methylation sites which successfully predicted long-term survival in our cohort (p = 0.0034) and in an independent validation cohort (p = 0.049).

Conclusion: Our results demonstrate that DNA methylation patterns in breast tumors change in response to NACT. These changes in DNA methylation show potential as prognostic biomarkers for breast cancer survival.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Chemotherapy; DNA methylation; Locally advanced breast cancer; Neoadjuvant chemotherapy; Survival; Treatment response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • Breast Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant / methods
  • DNA Methylation
  • Doxorubicin / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Neoadjuvant Therapy*
  • Prognosis


  • Doxorubicin