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J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 1998 Dec;67(5-6):403-11.

Macrophages, estrogen and the microenvironment of breast cancer.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Center for Research in Reproductive Biology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


Estrogen is a major mitogenic stimulus to established breast cancer. Estrogen sources include ovarian, extraglandular sites and breast tissue. Which source primarily maintains benign and breast cancer tissue estrogen concentrations remains unclear. While macrophages may comprise up to 50% of the mass of breast carcinomas, previous studies neglected to study them as possible sources of estrogen. We present evidence that breast macrophages constitute an in situ source of estradiol and that the amount produced is sufficient to mediate cellular proliferation. We utilized immunohistochemistry and RT-PCR to study cell-specific aromatase expression in (i) 29 breast biopsies, (ii) human monocytes/macrophages and (iii) a myeloid cell line (THP-1) capable of differentiating into macrophages. Use of a breast cancer cell line (MCF-7) provided biologic confirmation of the role of aromatization in cell proliferation. We demonstrated considerable amounts of immunoreactive-aromatase (irARO) in breast tissue macrophages and a positive correlation between the proportion of irARO present in macrophages and lesion severity. Using in vitro techniques, we demonstrated that monocytes and THP-1 cells require differentiation into macrophages to produce aromatase in amounts approaching placental levels. The amount of estrogen produced by THP-1 cells stimulated MCF-7 cells to proliferate, an effect blocked by aromatase inhibitors. Estrogen production by macrophages in breast tissue appears sufficient to stimulate the proliferation of adjacent epithelial cells and to autoregulate cytokine production. These findings represent a new dimension of cellular regulation in breast tissue with major biologic implications, amenable to pharmacological manipulation.

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