The effects of maternal diethylstilbestrol exposure are not limited to the F1 generation
2014 Study Abstract
The idea that susceptibility to breast cancer is determined not only through inherited germline mutations but also by epigenetic changes induced by alterations in hormonal environment during fetal development is gaining increasing support. Using findings obtained in human and animal studies, this review addresses the mechanisms that may explain why daughters of mothers who took synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy have two times higher breast cancer risk than women who were not exposed to it. The mechanisms likely involve epigenetic alterations, such as increased DNA methylation and modifications in histones and microRNA expression. Further, these alterations may target genes that regulate stem cells and prevent differentiation of their daughter cells. Recent findings in a preclinical model suggest that not only are women exposed to DES in utero at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, but this risk may extend to their daughters and granddaughters as well. It is critical, therefore, to determine if the increased risk is driven by epigenetic alterations in genes that increase susceptibility to breast cancer and if these alterations are reversible.
Gene expression can be altered as a consequence of mutations or epigenetic changes. In contrast to gene mutations within the DNA, epigenetic changes involve post-transcriptional modifications; that is, methylation of gene promoter regions, histone modifications, deposition of certain histone variants along specific gene sequences and microRNA (miRNA) expression. Although both changes are heritable, an important distinction between the two is that mutations are not reversible, but epigenetic modifications generally are.
Developing germ cells undergo epigenetic erasure when they, as primordial germ cells, enter into the fetal gonads around embryonic day 10 to 11 (in mice and rats), and then undergo gender-specific reprogramming as germ cells. It is now clear that reprogramming of these cells is susceptible to modifications caused by changes in fetal hormonal environment, such as resulting from an exposure to DES or other endocrine disruptors. Consequently, these exposures can leave a permanent biochemical footprint on the genome of the F1 generation germ cells, and this change may be inherited by the F2 generation germ line and several subsequent generations.
Some researchers have begun to investigate whether the effects of maternal DES exposure during pregnancy extend to the third generation in humans. Although there is no evidence that DES granddaughters have cervical and ovarian abnormalities similar to DES daughters, there is evidence that they may have more menstrual irregularities and a higher rate of infertility than non-exposed granddaughters. In addition, DES granddaughters may have a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer. The granddaughters are still too young to assess whether they might also be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Millions of women in the US, Europe and Australia have been exposed to DES in the womb, and consequently exhibit about a two times higher breast cancer risk than unexposed women. The increase in risk may not be limited to the DES-exposed daughters, but could also increase breast cancer risk in granddaughters and great granddaughters. Such outcome would be consistent with the findings we obtained in studies using a synthetic estrogen ethinyl estradiol (EE2). If DES has similar effects to ethinyl estradiol on the transgenerational increase in breast cancer risk, it is urgent to find ways to stop the cycle of inheritance, and also prevent breast cancer in DES-exposed granddaughters and great granddaughters.
To achieve this goal, we need to understand how maternal DES exposure during pregnancy increases a daughter’s breast cancer risk. A plausible model is proposed in feature image. It is evident from studies done in animal models that in utero DES exposure induces epigenetic changes in reproductive tract tissues and the breast. DES exposure might also have induced epigenetic changes in primordial germ cells and consequently germ cells, and further be detectable in the somatic cells in granddaughters and great granddaughters. We are not aware of any study that has compared epigenetic changes in germ cells and the next generation somatic cells in individuals exposed to DES or other endocrine disruptors in utero. Second, we should investigate whether the transgenerational increase in breast cancer risk can be prevented with drugs that reverse epigenetic modifications. Our preliminary studies in mice suggest that this is achievable in daughters by using the well-tolerated and non-toxic histone deacetylase inhibitor valproic acid and DNMT inhibitor hydralazine. However, whether these compounds also prevent an increase in granddaughters and great granddaughters in experimental models remains to be investigated.
In summary, women exposed to DES in utero are destined to be at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, and this risk may extend to their daughters and granddaughters as well. It is of critical importance to determine if the increased risk is driven by epigenetic alterations in genes that increase susceptibility to breast cancer and if these alterations are reversible.
- Maternal exposure to diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy and increased breast cancer risk in daughters, Breast Cancer Research, NCBI PubMed PMC4053091, 2014 Apr 30.
- Proposed model to explain an increase in breast cancer risk in daughters, and possibly granddaughters and great granddaughters, of mothers who took diethylstilbestrol during pregnancy : featured image credit PMC4053091/figure/F1.