Research Highlights

Breast cancer gene linked to heart health

Published online 26 December 2011

Mohammed Yahia

Mutations to the tumour suppressor gene BRCA1 are one of the main causes of inherited breast and ovarian cancers. New research published in Nature Communications now shows that BRCA1 also protects the DNA of cardiac cells and reduces premature cell death.

An international team of researchers, led by Subodh Verma from St Michael's Hospital in Ontario, Canada, which includes Mohammed Al-Omran at the King Saud University, Riyadh, are the first to study what happens when BRCA1 is lost in cardiomyocytes.

Ischaemia, the loss of blood supply to tissue, or genotoxic substances can break the double strands of DNA in cardiac cells. BRCA1 normally repairs the breaks in the DNA, helping to avoid cell suicide know as apoptosis, and thereby protects these cells. Mice that lacked the BRCA1 protein had higher rates of mortality following exposure to ischemia or genotoxic substances, such as anthracycline which is used in the treatment of cancer.

According to the findings, people carrying a BRCA1 mutation may be more susceptible to cardiovascular disease. The researchers suggest that BRCA1 may play a therapeutic role in heart failure by protecting cardiomyocyte from apoptosis. Its loss results in accumulation of unrepaired DNA, leading to cell deaths which can eventually result in cardiac failure, one of the leading causes of death in the world.

The researchers caution that breast cancer patients who are being treated by chemotherapeutic agents such as anthracycline might be at an increased risk of cardiac failure if they carry a BRCA1 mutation.


  1. Shukla, P. et al. BRCA1 is an essential regulator of heart function and survival following myocardial infarction. Nature Communications 2 (2011) doi:10.1038/ncomms1601