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Breast Cancer Res. 2004;6(3):119-27. Epub 2004 Mar 18.

Phyto-oestrogens and breast cancer chemoprevention.

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  • 1Molecular Medicine Unit, University of Leeds, St James's University Hospital, Leeds, UK.


Phytoestrogens are polyphenol compounds of plant origin that exhibit a structural similarity to the mammalian steroid hormone 17beta-oestradiol. In Asian nations the staple consumption of phyto-oestrogen-rich foodstuffs correlates with a reduced incidence of breast cancer. Human dietary intervention trials have noted a direct relationship between phyto-oestrogen ingestion and a favourable hormonal profile associated with decreased breast cancer risk. However, these studies failed to ascertain the precise effect of dietary phyto-oestrogens on the proliferation of mammary tissue. Epidemiological and rodent studies crucially suggest that breast cancer chemoprevention by dietary phyto-oestrogen compounds is dependent on ingestion before puberty, when the mammary gland is relatively immature. Phyto-oestrogen supplements are commercially marketed for use by postmenopausal women as natural and safe alternatives to hormone replacement therapy. Of current concern is the effect of phyto-oestrogen compounds on the growth of pre-existing breast tumours. Data are contradictory, with cell culture studies reporting both the oestrogenic stimulation of oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer cell lines and the antagonism of tamoxifen activity at physiological phyto-oestrogen concentrations. Conversely, phyto-oestrogen ingestion by rodents is associated with the development of less aggressive breast tumours with reduced metastatic potential. Despite the present ambiguity, current data do suggest a potential benefit from use of phyto-oestrogens in breast cancer chemoprevention and therapy. These aspects are discussed.

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