Research Papers: Pathology:

Pregnancy at early age is associated with a reduction of progesterone-responsive cells and epithelial Wnt signaling in human breast tissue

Simone Muenst, Robert Mechera, Silvio Däster, Salvatore Piscuoglio, Charlotte K.Y. Ng, Fabienne Meier-Abt, Walter P. Weber and Savas D. Soysal _

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Oncotarget. 2017; 8:22353-22360. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.16023

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Simone Muenst1,*, Robert Mechera2,3,*, Silvio Däster2, Salvatore Piscuoglio1, Charlotte K.Y. Ng1, Fabienne Meier-Abt4, Walter P. Weber2,* and Savas D. Soysal2,*

1 Institute of Pathology, University Hospital Basel, Basel, Switzerland

2 Department of Surgery, University Hospital Basel, Basel, Switzerland

3 Department of Biomedicine, University Hospital Basel, Basel, Switzerland

4 Institute of Hematology, University Hospital Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

* These authors have contributed equally to this work

Correspondence to:

Savas D. Soysal, email:

Keywords: early pregnancy, breast cancer, Wnt signaling pathway, breast cancer prevention, Pathology Section

Received: November 18, 2016 Accepted: February 22, 2017 Published: March 08, 2017


Background: Pregnancy at early age is the most significant modifiable factor which consistently decreases lifetime breast cancer risk. However, the underlying mechanisms haven’t been conclusively identified. Studies in mice suggest a reduction in progesterone-receptor (PR) sensitive epithelial cells as well as a downregulation of the Wnt signaling pathway as being one of the main mechanisms for the protective effect of early pregnancy. The aim of our study was to validate these findings in humans.

Methods: We collected benign breast tissue of 125 women who had been stratified according to age at first pregnancy and the occurrence of subsequent breast cancer, and performed immunohistochemistry for PR, Wnt4 and the Wnt-target Versican.

Results: The number of PR positive epithelial cells was significantly lower in the group of women with early pregnancy and no subsequent breast cancer compared to the group of nulliparous women with subsequent invasive breast cancer (p = 0.0135). In women with early pregnancy, expression of Versican and Wnt4 was significantly lower compared to nulliparous women (p = 0.0036 and p = 0.0241 respectively), and Versican expression was also significant lower compared to women with late pregnancy (p < 0.0001).

Discussion: Our results confirm prior observations in mice and suggest a role of downregulation of epithelial Wnt signaling in the protective effect of early pregnancy in humans. This results in a decreased proliferation of stem/progenitor cells; therefore, the Wnt signaling pathway may represent a potential target for breast cancer prevention in humans.

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