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Causal relationships between breast cancer risk factors based on mammographic features.

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Ye, Zhoufeng 
Nguyen, Tuong L 
Dite, Gillian S 
MacInnis, Robert J 
Schmidt, Daniel F 


BACKGROUND: Mammogram risk scores based on texture and density defined by different brightness thresholds are associated with breast cancer risk differently and could reveal distinct information about breast cancer risk. We aimed to investigate causal relationships between these intercorrelated mammogram risk scores to determine their relevance to breast cancer aetiology. METHODS: We used digitised mammograms for 371 monozygotic twin pairs, aged 40-70 years without a prior diagnosis of breast cancer at the time of mammography, from the Australian Mammographic Density Twins and Sisters Study. We generated normalised, age-adjusted, and standardised risk scores based on textures using the Cirrus algorithm and on three spatially independent dense areas defined by increasing brightness threshold: light areas, bright areas, and brightest areas. Causal inference was made using the Inference about Causation from Examination of FAmilial CONfounding (ICE FALCON) method. RESULTS: The mammogram risk scores were correlated within twin pairs and with each other (r = 0.22-0.81; all P < 0.005). We estimated that 28-92% of the associations between the risk scores could be attributed to causal relationships between the scores, with the rest attributed to familial confounders shared by the scores. There was consistent evidence for positive causal effects: of Cirrus, light areas, and bright areas on the brightest areas (accounting for 34%, 55%, and 85% of the associations, respectively); and of light areas and bright areas on Cirrus (accounting for 37% and 28%, respectively). CONCLUSIONS: In a mammogram, the lighter (less dense) areas have a causal effect on the brightest (highly dense) areas, including through a causal pathway via textural features. These causal relationships help us gain insight into the relative aetiological importance of different mammographic features in breast cancer. For example our findings are consistent with the brightest areas being more aetiologically important than lighter areas for screen-detected breast cancer; conversely, light areas being more aetiologically important for interval breast cancer. Additionally, specific textural features capture aetiologically independent breast cancer risk information from dense areas. These findings highlight the utility of ICE FALCON and family data in decomposing the associations between intercorrelated disease biomarkers into distinct biological pathways.


Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Twins Research Australia and the twins who participated in this study. The Australian Mammographic Density Twins and Sisters Study was facilitated through access to Twins Research Australia, a national resource supported by a Centre of Research Excellence Grant (Grant No. 1079102) from the NHMRC. Z.Y is supported by China Scholarship Council—University of Melbourne PhD Scholarship. T.L.N. is supported by Cancer Council Victoria (AF7305). S.L. is an NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow (GNT2017373). V.F.C.E. is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. M.C.S. is supported by a NHMRC Fellowship (GNT1155163). J.L.H. is supported by a NHMRC Fellowship (GNT1137349).


Breast cancer, Causal inference, ICE FALCON, Mammographic density, Textural feature, Female, Humans, Australia, Breast, Breast Density, Breast Neoplasms, Mammography, Risk Factors, Adult, Middle Aged, Aged

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Breast Cancer Res

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC