Carcinogenicity of estrogens in human breast epithelial cells

DES induces in HBEC phenotypic changes indicative of cell transformation, associated with significant genomic alterations

2001 Study Abstract

Epidemiological and clinical evidences indicate that breast cancer risk is associated with prolonged ovarian function that results in elevated circulating levels of steroid hormones. Principal among these is estrogen, which is associated with two important risk factors, early onset of menarche and late menopause.

However, up to now there is no direct experimental evidence that estrogens are responsible of the initiation of human breast cancer. We postulate that if estrogens are causative agents of this disease, they should elicit in human breast epithelial cells (HBEC) genomic alterations similar to those exhibited by human breast cancers, such as DNA amplification and loss of genetic material representing tumor suppressor genes. These effects could result from binding of the hormone to its nuclear receptors (ER) or from its metabolic activation to reactive metabolites.

This hypothesis was tested by treating with the natural estrogen 17beta-estradiol (E2) and the synthetic steroid diethylstilbestrol (DES) MCF-10F cells, a HBEC line that is negative for ER. Cells treated with the chemical carcinogen benzo (a) pyrene (BP) served as a positive control of cell transformation.

BP-, E2-, and DES-treated MCF-10F cells showed increases in survival efficiency and colony efficiency in agar methocel, and loss of ductulogenic capacity in collagen gel. The largest colonies were formed by BP-treated cells, becoming progressively smaller in DES- and E2-treated cells. The loss of ductulogenic capacity was maximal in BP-, and less prominent in E2- and DES-treated cells. Genomic analysis revealed that E2- and DES-treated cells exhibited loss of heterozygosity in chromosomes 3 and 11, at 3p21, 3p21-21.2, 3p21.1-14.2, and 3p14.2 14.1, and at 11q23.3 and 11q23.1-25 regions, respectively. It is noteworthy that these loci are also affected in breast lesions, such as ductal hyperplasia, carcinoma in situ, and invasive carcinoma.

Our data are the first ones to demonstrate that estrogens induce in HBEC phenotypic changes indicative of cell transformation and that those changes are associated with significant genomic alterations that might unravel new pathways in the initiation of breast cancer.


  • Carcinogenicity of estrogens in human breast epithelial cells, APMIS : acta pathologica, microbiologica, et immunologica Scandinavica, NCBI PubMed PMID: 11297193, 2001 Jan.
  • Image credit scitechdaily.

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