Coffee with Komen – Tissue Bank Research

By Kathi Ridley-Merriweather, Komen Tissue Bank Communications and Minority Outreach Coordinator

The Komen Tissue Bank (KTB), a part of Indiana University, is the only biobank in the world that collects healthy breast tissue for breast cancer research. Scientists around the world have sought us out and have requested our samples to use as normal controls in their projects.

A few times per year we check up on those researchers to find out how their work is going. Below is my interview with Mary Sehl, MD. Dr. Sehl is a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer and geriatrics at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.

Q: How did you find out about the Komen Tissue Bank, and why did it interest you?

I had heard of this tremendous resource several years ago at a breast cancer meeting, and learned that it was being developed to advance research in normal breast biology, which is absolutely essential for understanding what goes awry in breast carcinogenesis. Recently, when my research team became interested in questions of whether breast tissue ages faster than other tissues in the body, I began inquiring what samples were available from different tissues at different time points. I was amazed by the wealth of longitudinal specimens and survey data available, and also by how collaborative, knowledgeable, and helpful the KTB team was.

Q: What types of samples have you obtained from the Komen Tissue Bank?

We have obtained paired breast tissue and peripheral blood samples donated by healthy women at two time points spaced at least 2 years apart. We have also received data on the reproductive history and menopausal status of each of these women.

Q: What do you hope to discover/have you discovered in your research?

We are able to estimate the biologic age of a tissue based on DNA methylation levels at 353 sites. We find that epigenetic age is elevated in healthy female breast tissue compared with peripheral blood from the same individual. We find that this difference is more dramatic in younger women, and diminishes as one approaches the age of the menopausal transition. We hypothesize that this difference is caused by exposure to estrogen and chronic cell cycling.

Q: How will the Komen Tissue Bank samples help with your research? What value do they add?

Using the KTB samples, we were able to directly compare DNA methylation levels of breast and blood tissues from within the same individual, and found that the breast appears to age faster than peripheral blood. We plan to extend our study to examine what factors (e.g. total menstrual years, number of pregnancies, breast feeding) influence the epigenetic age of breast tissue. We have further developed a collaboration with Dr. Natascia Marino in the KTB to examine methylation patterns in breast tissue that are associated with risk of later developing breast cancer.

Q: Please explain in lay terms how your research might impact treatment options for breast cancer patients in the future?

We anticipate that epigenetic patterns in breast tissue that may provide additional information in identifying women at high risk for developing breast cancer. Ultimately, this information has the potential to influence screening and prevention.

Q: Our readers would love to know some personal information about you. Tell us anything at all that you feel comfortable talking about.

I think if my husband and I weren’t both in medicine, we might be farmers. We have planted a small grove of mainly citrus trees in our backyard, and we recently built a chicken coop there, at the request of our children Sarah (age 7) and Ryan (age 5). The four of us also enjoy traveling the rugged coast of California, hiking, swimming, music, yoga, and ballet.

Thank you so much, Dr. Sehl!


The Komen Tissue Bank will hold its only breast tissue collection of the year on January 21st, 2017. At this time, we are primarily focused on collecting tissue from women belonging to minority and ethnic groups.  If this applies to you and you would like to know more about donating your healthy breast tissue to help prevent breast cancer, please contact Kathi Ridley-Merriweather at

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