Stem cells and prenatal origin of breast cancer

Cancer Causes Control. 2004 Jun;15(5):517-30. doi: 10.1023/B:CACO.0000036450.06092.ce.


The hypothesis that in utero exposure to pregnancy hormones, notably estrogens, is related to the occurrence of breast cancer in the offspring has been examined in a number of epidemiological and experimental studies. Many studies have provided direct or indirect evidence that supports the hypothesis of an intrauterine component in the origin of breast cancer. Human studies to examine the underlying biological mechanisms, however, have been limited. We review the likely role of stem cells in hormone-mediated carcinogenic process, particularly as intermediate steps between in utero exposure to hormones and breast cancer. We summarize also studies related to the assumptions of the hypothesis concerning in utero exposure. We propose the use of stem cell potential as a measurable variable of the 'fertile soil', a term that has been used to characterize the consequences of fetal exposure to intrauterine environment. We conclude by outlining a feasible population-based study that measures stem cell potential to explore mechanisms mediating the relation between in utero exposure to pregnancy hormones and breast cancer risk in the offspring.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Estrogens / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Stem Cells / physiology*


  • Estrogens