Melatonin: receptor-mediated events that may affect breast and other steroid hormone-dependent cancers

Mol Carcinog. 1998 Mar;21(3):149-55. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1098-2744(199803)21:3<149::aid-mc1>;2-h.


Epidemiological studies have suggested a possible link between extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and increased rates of certain cancers. One cancer that has been postulated to be associated with EMF exposure is breast cancer, for which increased rates have been reported among electricians. These cancer associations are weak, and the link to EMF exposures remains tenuous. Understanding the mechanisms by which EMFs could have biological effects will help in elucidating the risk, if any, from EMFs. One hypothesis that has received considerable attention involves reduction of melatonin levels by EMFs. This hypothesis suggests that loss of melatonin affects a variety of hormonal processes such as estrogen homeostasis and thereby may increase breast cancer rates. Since this theory was first presented, putative melatonin receptors have been cloned, providing new tools with which to examine melatonin's mechanism of action and the melatonin hypothesis. These receptors are found in nuclear and membrane fractions of cells. The nuclear receptors (retinoid Z receptors) are found both in the brain and in non-neural tissues, whereas the membrane-bound receptors are found primarily in neural tissue and have a higher affinity for melatonin. These receptors may control a variety of hormonal and immunological functions, including the release of gonadotropins from the hypothalamus and pituitary and 5-lipoxygenase activity in B lymphocytes. This Working Hypothesis briefly reviews our current knowledge of melatonin receptors and then provides theories on how the inactivation of melatonin receptors may cause cancer and suggests areas of research for addressing this question.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / ultrastructure*
  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Melatonin / physiology*
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / etiology*
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / ultrastructure*
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / physiology*
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / physiology*
  • Receptors, Melatonin


  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Receptors, Melatonin
  • Melatonin