Beyond the ‘Breast Cancer” Gene (BRCA): Why Food Is Your Medicine

Written By: Sayer Ji

Following on the heels of Angelina Jolie’s widely celebrated decision to remove her breasts ‘preventively,’ few truly understand how important preventing environmental chemical exposures and incorporating cancer-preventing foods into their diet really is in reducing the risk of gene-mediated breast cancer.  

There is so much fear and misinformation surrounding the so-called ‘Breast Cancer Associated’ genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that it should help to dispel some prevailing myths by looking at the crucial role that epigenetic factors play in their expression.  Literally ‘above’ (epi) or ‘beyond’ the control of the genes, these factors include environmental chemical exposures, nutrition and stress, which profoundly affect cancer risk within us all, regardless of what variant (‘mutated’ or ‘wild’)* that we happen to carry within our genomes.

In 2012, a very important study was published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry that looked at the role a natural compound called resveratrol may play in preventing the inactivation of the BRCA-1 gene. BRCA-1 is known as a “caretaker” gene because it is responsible for healing up double-strand breaks within our DNA. When the BRCA-1 gene is rendered dysfunctional or becomes inactivated, either through a congenital/germline inheritance of DNA defects (‘mutation’) or through chemical exposures, the result is the same: harm to the DNA repair mechanisms within the affected cells (particularly breast and ovary; possibly testicular), hence increasing the risk of cancer.

Ironically, while the prevalence of a “bad” inherited BRCA1 variation is actually quite low relative to the general population (A 2003 study found only 6.6% of breast cancer patients even have either a BRCA1 and BRCA2 germline mutation[1]), everyone’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are susceptible to damage from environmental chemical exposures, most particularly xenobiotic (non-natural) chemicals and radiation. This means that instead of looking to a set of “bad” genes as the primary cause of cancer, we should be looking to avoid exposing both our “bad” and “good” genes alike to preventable chemical exposures, as well as avoiding nutrient deficiencies and/or incompatibilities, which also play a vital role in enabling us to express or silence cancer-associated genes. [For more on why genes don’t “cause” disease see: The Great DNA Data Deficit.]

Natural Compound Prevents Breast Cancer Gene (BRCA1) Malignancy

The aforementioned resveratrol study is titled “BRCA-1 promoter hypermethylation and silencing induced by the aromatic hydrocarbon receptor-ligand TCDD are prevented by resveratrol in MCF-7 Cells.” 

Quite a mouthful.

Essentially, the BRCA-1 promoter is the gene sequence within the BRCA1 gene that drives the production of the protein that enables our cells to repair DNA damage, and when “silenced” (i.e. hypermethylated) via the receptor for aromatic hydrocarbons (which are primarily xenobiotic petrochemical compounds), it leads to chromosomal damage within those cells. This study looked at the role of resveratrol, a natural compound found in grapes, wine, chocolate, and peanuts, in preventing these chemically-induced changes in gene methylation, also known as ‘gene silencing.’

According to the study:

“The aberrant hypermethylation of tumor suppressor genes has been recognized as a predisposing event in breast carcinogenesis [1]. For example, BRCA-1 promoter hypermethylation has been linked to loss or silencing of BRCA-1 expression in sporadic breast tumors [2–7] and the development of high-grade breast carcinomas [8–10]. Higher incidence (30%–90%) of BRCA-1 hypermethylation has been reported in infiltrating tumors [2,10–12], suggesting that epigenetic repression of BRCA-1 may accompany the transition to more invasive phenotypes. Moreover, BRCA-1 promoter methylation was found to be positively associated with increased mortality among women with breast cancer [13].