High dose ionizing radiation (IR) is a well-known risk factor for breast cancer but the health effects after low-dose (LD, <10 cGy) exposures remain highly uncertain. We explored a systems approach that compared LD-induced chromosome damage and transcriptional responses in strains of mice with genetic differences in their sensitivity to radiation-induced mammary cancer (BALB/c and C57BL/6) for the purpose of identifying mechanisms of mammary cancer susceptibility. Unirradiated mammary and blood tissues of these strains differed significantly in baseline expressions of DNA repair, tumor suppressor, and stress response genes. LD exposures of 7.5 cGy (weekly for 4 weeks) did not induce detectable genomic instability in either strain. However, the mammary glands of the sensitive strain but not the resistant strain showed early transcriptional responses involving: (a) diminished immune response, (b) increased cellular stress, (c) altered TGFβ-signaling, and (d) inappropriate expression of developmental genes. One month after LD exposure, the two strains showed opposing responses in transcriptional signatures linked to proliferation, senescence, and microenvironment functions. We also discovered a pre-exposure expression signature in both blood and mammary tissues that is predictive for poor survival among human cancer patients (p = 0.0001), and a post-LD-exposure signature also predictive for poor patient survival (p<0.0001). There is concordant direction of expression in the LD-exposed sensitive mouse strain, in biomarkers of human DCIS and in biomarkers of human breast tumors. Our findings support the hypothesis that genetic mechanisms that determine susceptibility to LD radiation induced mammary cancer in mice are similar to the tissue mechanisms that determine poor-survival in breast cancer patients. We observed non-linearity of the LD responses providing molecular evidence against the LNT risk model and obtained new evidence that LD responses are strongly influenced by genotype. Our findings suggest that the biological assumptions concerning the mechanisms by which LD radiation is translated into breast cancer risk should be reexamined and suggest a new strategy to identify genetic features that predispose or protect individuals from LD-induced breast cancer.
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