Circulating insulin-like growth factor-I, insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 and terminal duct lobular unit involution of the breast: a cross-sectional study of women with benign breast disease

Breast Cancer Res. 2016 Feb 18;18(1):24. doi: 10.1186/s13058-016-0678-4.


Background: Terminal duct lobular units (TDLUs) are the primary structures from which breast cancers and their precursors arise. Decreased age-related TDLU involution and elevated mammographic density are both correlated and independently associated with increased breast cancer risk, suggesting that these characteristics of breast parenchyma might be linked to a common factor. Given data suggesting that increased circulating levels of insulin-like growth factors (IGFs) factors are related to reduced TDLU involution and increased mammographic density, we assessed these relationships using validated quantitative methods in a cross-sectional study of women with benign breast disease.

Methods: Serum IGF-I, IGFBP-3 and IGF-I:IGFBP-3 molar ratios were measured in 228 women, ages 40-64, who underwent diagnostic breast biopsies yielding benign diagnoses at University of Vermont affiliated centers. Biopsies were assessed for three separate measures inversely related to TDLU involution: numbers of TDLUs per unit of tissue area ("TDLU count"), median TDLU diameter ("TDLU span"), and number of acini per TDLU ("acini count"). Regression models, stratified by menopausal status and adjusted for potential confounders, were used to assess the associations of TDLU count, median TDLU span and median acini count per TDLU with tertiles of circulating IGFs. Given that mammographic density is associated with both IGF levels and breast cancer risk, we also stratified these associations by mammographic density.

Results: Higher IGF-I levels among postmenopausal women and an elevated IGF-I:IGFBP-3 ratio among all women were associated with higher TDLU counts, a marker of decreased lobular involution (P-trend = 0.009 and <0.0001, respectively); these associations were strongest among women with elevated mammographic density (P-interaction <0.01). Circulating IGF levels were not significantly associated with TDLU span or acini count per TDLU.

Conclusions: These results suggest that elevated IGF levels may define a sub-group of women with high mammographic density and limited TDLU involution, two markers that have been related to increased breast cancer risk. If confirmed in prospective studies with cancer endpoints, these data may suggest that evaluation of IGF signaling and its downstream effects may have value for risk prediction and suggest strategies for breast cancer chemoprevention through inhibition of the IGF system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Breast / pathology
  • Breast Density
  • Breast Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • Breast Diseases / genetics*
  • Breast Diseases / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3 / blood
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3 / genetics*
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / genetics*
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / metabolism
  • Mammary Glands, Human / abnormalities
  • Mammography
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors


  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I