Estrogens, BRCA1, and breast cancer

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Findings obtained in in vitro assays and animal studies indicate that estrogens might influence the activity of the tumor suppressor gene BRCA1, and BRCA1 in turn may suppress the activity of the estrogen receptor. This review will discuss the possibility that interactions between estrogens and BRCA1 partly explain why elevated circulating estrogen levels appear to increase breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women but not among young women. A hypothesis is proposed that estrogens have a dual role in affecting breast cancer risk. In young women whose breasts have not yet accumulated critical mutations required for cancer initiation and promotion, activation of BRCA1 by estrogens helps to maintain genetic stability and induce differentiation, and therefore estrogens do not increase breast cancer risk. Breasts of older women, in contrast, are likely to contain transformed cells whose growth is stimulated by estrogens. Although BRCA1 is also probably activated by estrogens in older women, its function may have been impaired, for example, due to increased methylation associated with aging. Estrogen exposure in women who carry germ-line mutations in BRCA1 may always increase breast cancer risk because estrogens would be able to cause DNA damage and increase genetic instability without being opposed by BRCA1-induced repair activity. This might lead to an increase in the number of overall mutations, including those that initiate breast cancer. In addition to increasing genetic instability, reduced BRCA1 activity may also be linked to changes in the mammary gland morphology that predispose individuals to breast cancer. For example, a persistent presence of lobules type 1, which are the least differentiated lobular structures in the human breast, is seen in the BRCA1 mutation carriers. The aim of this review is to discuss the role of premenopausal estrogens in breast cancer and to initiate more research that would lead to novel means of reducing breast cancer risk, particularly among BRCA1 mutation carriers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4993-5001
Number of pages9
JournalCancer Research
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 15 2000
Externally publishedYes


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