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Review

Epigenome remodelling in breast cancer: insights from an early in vitro model of carcinogenesis

Warwick J Locke1 and Susan J Clark12*

Author Affiliations

1 Epigenetics Laboratory, Cancer Program, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, 384 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, 2010 Australia

2 St Vincent's Clinical School, University of New South Wales, St Vincent's Hospital, Level 5, de Lacy Building, Victoia Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, 2010 Australia

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Breast Cancer Research 2012, 14:215  doi:10.1186/bcr3237

Published: 15 November 2012

Abstract

Epigenetic gene regulation has influence over a diverse range of cellular functions, including the maintenance of pluripotency, differentiation, and cellular identity, and is deregulated in many diseases, including cancer. Whereas the involvement of epigenetic dysregulation in cancer is well documented, much of the mechanistic detail involved in triggering these changes remains unclear. In the current age of genomics, the development of new sequencing technologies has seen an influx of genomic and epigenomic data and drastic improvements in both resolution and coverage. Studies in cancer cell lines and clinical samples using next-generation sequencing are rapidly delivering spectacular insights into the nature of the cancer genome and epigenome. Despite these improvements in technology, the timing and relationship between genetic and epigenetic changes that occur during the process of carcinogenesis are still unclear. In particular, what changes to the epigenome are playing a driving role during carcinogenesis and what influence the temporal nature of these changes has on cancer progression are not known. Understanding the early epigenetic changes driving breast cancer has the exciting potential to provide a novel set of therapeutic targets or early-disease biomarkers or both. Therefore, it is important to find novel systems that permit the study of initial epigenetic events that potentially occur during the first stages of breast cancer. Non-malignant human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs) provide an exciting in vitro model of very early breast carcinogenesis. When grown in culture, HMECs are able to temporarily escape senescence and acquire a pre-malignant breast cancer-like phenotype (variant HMECs, or vHMECs). Cultured HMECs are composed mainly of cells from the basal breast epithelial layer. Therefore, vHMECs are considered to represent the basal-like subtype of breast cancer. The transition from HMECs to vHMECs in culture recapitulates the epigenomic phenomena that occur during the progression from normal breast to pre-malignancy. Therefore, the HMEC model system provides the unique opportunity to study the very earliest epigenomic aberrations occurring during breast carcinogenesis and can give insight into the sequence of epigenomic events that lead to breast malignancy. This review provides an overview of epigenomic research in breast cancer and discusses in detail the utility of the HMEC model system to discover early epigenomic changes involved in breast carcinogenesis.