The Birth of Breast Cancer; Do Adult Diseases Start in the Womb?

By Fackelmann, Kathleen | Science News, February 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Birth of Breast Cancer; Do Adult Diseases Start in the Womb?


Fackelmann, Kathleen, Science News


Epidemiologist Dimitrios Trichopoulos, puzzling over why women develop breast cancer, focused on various factors before homing in on a chemical that appeared to operate in a surprising environment many years earlier.

That chemical is the natural hormone estrogen, which may have set the stage for cancer while the women were still in the womb, says Trichopoulos of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Invasive breast cancer strikes about 180,000 women in the United States each year. It is the most common cancer among U.S. women. Known risk factors, such as a family history of the disease, early menarche, or a first live birth after age 30, account for only a small portion of cases. What's behind the high frequency of this disease in the U.S. population?

Over the years, scientists have blamed and exonerated many factors, including a high-fat diet and abortion, but none has proved the central villain in the story of breast cancer.

New research is drawing attention to the beginning of a woman's life. Trichopoulos and others now believe that some factor within the uterus programs fetal cells for the development of cancer decades later.

"It is a provocative hypothesis-one that needs to be explored further," comments Louise A. Brinton, chief of the environmental epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Breast cancer is not the only disease scientists think may be linked to the intrauterine environment. A spate of recent reports suggests that conditions in the womb may play a role in the risk of prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases. Such ailments don't appear until the fifth, sixth, or even seventh decade of life.

In the 1980s, Trichopoulos had been trying to figure out why, despite advances in treatment, breast cancer continued to cut a wide swath among U.S. women.

He knew that cells, including mammary cells, face the highest risk of cancer before they become specialized for a specific function. Once a breast cell is specialized for, say, milk production, it is relatively resistant to cancer. Yet some breast cells remain largely immature until puberty or even a woman's first pregnancy. While other researchers looked for the genesis of breast cancer in the teenage years or during a first pregnancy, Trichopoulos went back even further-to the immature breast cells of the fetus.

Trichopoulos also knew that the female sex hormone estrogen fuels the growth of breast cells. Rapidly dividing cells are at greater risk of genetic error, which can lead to cancer. Indeed, some researchers believe that postmenopausal women who take estrogen alone, rather than a combination of hormones, face a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer.

Putting these two ideas together in the April 21, 1990 Lancet, Trichopoulos suggested that high concentrations of estrogen circulating in a mother's womb may increase her daughter's subsequent risk of getting breast cancer.

"If it turns out to be right, it will be an important advance, " Trichopoulos says. "We feel confident that something is happening during the perinatal period."

He is the first to admit that many questions remain about estrogen's role in the womb. Moreover, the hormone is just one of many players that could influence the mammary cells of the fetus, he says.

The first empirical data supporting his theory hit the press 2 years after he proposed it. In the Oct. 24, 1992 Lancet, Trichopoulos, Anders Ekbom, Hans-Olov Adami, both at Uppsala University in Sweden, and their colleagues reported that women who had weighed 8 pounds or more at birth had a 30 percent greater risk of breast cancer later in life (SN: 10/31/92, p. 293).

Other research has suggested that women with higher-than-average concentrations of estrogen in their blood during pregnancy give birth to heavier babies. Because the Swedish study was small, the link between breast cancer and weight at birth could have been due to chance. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Birth of Breast Cancer; Do Adult Diseases Start in the Womb?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.