Introduction: Increased mammographic density is a strong risk factor for breast cancer. The reasons for this are not clear; two obvious possibilities are increased epithelial cell proliferation in mammographically dense areas and increased breast epithelium in women with mammographically dense breasts. We addressed this question by studying the number of epithelial cells in terminal duct lobular units (TDLUs) and in ducts, and their proliferation rates, as they related to local breast densities defined histologically within individual women.
Method: We studied deep breast tissue away from subcutaneous fat obtained from 12 healthy women undergoing reduction mammoplasty. A slide from each specimen was stained with the cell-proliferation marker MIB1. Each slide was divided into (sets of) areas of low, medium and high density of connective tissue (CT; highly correlated with mammographic densities). Within each of the areas, the numbers of epithelial cells in TDLUs and ducts, and the numbers MIB1 positive, were counted.
Results: The relative concentration (RC) of epithelial cells in high compared with low CT density areas was 12.3 (95% confidence interval (CI) 10.9 to 13.8) in TDLUs and 34.1 (95% CI 26.9 to 43.2) in ducts. There was a much smaller difference between medium and low CT density areas: RC = 1.4 (95% CI 1.2 to 1.6) in TDLUs and 1.9 (95% CI 1.5 to 2.3) in ducts. The relative mitotic rate (RMR; MIB1 positive) of epithelial cells in high compared with low CT density areas was 0.59 (95% CI 0.53 to 0.66) in TDLUs and 0.65 (95% CI 0.53 to 0.79) in ducts; the figures for the comparison of medium with low CT density areas were 0.58 (95% CI 0.48 to 0.70) in TDLUs and 0.66 (95% CI 0.44 to 0.97) in ducts.
Conclusion: Breast epithelial cells are overwhelmingly concentrated in high CT density areas. Their proliferation rate in areas of high and medium CT density is lower than that in low CT density areas. The increased breast cancer risk associated with increased mammographic densities may simply be a reflection of increased epithelial cell numbers. Why epithelium is concentrated in high CT density areas remains to be explained.