Susceptibility to breast cancer might be pre-determined in utero. Alterations in the fetal hormonal environment, caused by either maternal diet or exposure to environmental factors with endocrine activities, can modify the epigenome, and these modifications are inherited in somatic daughter cells and maintained throughout life. These epigenetic modifications might lead to changes in mammary gland development, such as increased vulnerability of epithelial targets for malignant transformation. According to this hypothesis, on post-pubertal exposure to an initiating factor, such as a carcinogen, high levels of hormones and radiation, the mammary epithelial targets, perhaps stem cells, in terminal end buds/terminal ductal lobular units would be at an increased risk of malignant transformation. The increased susceptibility for cancer initiation might result from high levels of cell proliferation, reduced apoptosis and/or altered stromal regulation. Thus, maternal diet and environmental exposure might increase the risk of breast cancer by inducing permanent epigenetic changes in the fetus that alter the susceptibility to factors that can initiate breast cancer. Identifying the epigenetically altered target genes and their ligands might lead to strategies to prevent this disease in some women.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The authors wish to thank Dr Celia Byrne for advice on Figure 1 . The work was supported by grants to Leena Hilakivi-Clarke from the National Cancer Institute (1 U54 CA00100971, 5 RO1 CA89950) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (5R21ES013858).
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