Fetal Origins of Breast Cancer

Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2006 Nov;17(9):340-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tem.2006.09.002. Epub 2006 Sep 25.


Susceptibility to breast cancer might be pre-determined in utero. Alterations in the fetal hormonal environment, caused by either maternal diet or exposure to environmental factors with endocrine activities, can modify the epigenome, and these modifications are inherited in somatic daughter cells and maintained throughout life. These epigenetic modifications might lead to changes in mammary gland development, such as increased vulnerability of epithelial targets for malignant transformation. According to this hypothesis, on post-pubertal exposure to an initiating factor, such as a carcinogen, high levels of hormones and radiation, the mammary epithelial targets, perhaps stem cells, in terminal end buds/terminal ductal lobular units would be at an increased risk of malignant transformation. The increased susceptibility for cancer initiation might result from high levels of cell proliferation, reduced apoptosis and/or altered stromal regulation. Thus, maternal diet and environmental exposure might increase the risk of breast cancer by inducing permanent epigenetic changes in the fetus that alter the susceptibility to factors that can initiate breast cancer. Identifying the epigenetically altered target genes and their ligands might lead to strategies to prevent this disease in some women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / embryology*
  • Carcinogens / pharmacology
  • Carcinoma / embryology*
  • Diet
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Models, Biological
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / etiology
  • Rats


  • Carcinogens