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Indian J Exp Biol. 2006 Aug;44(8):597-617.

Environmental contaminants in pathogenesis of breast cancer.

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  • 1Department of Pharmacology, Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN 37208, USA.


This review is an attempt to comprehend the diverse groups of environmental chemical contaminants with a potential for pathogenesis of breast cancer, their probable sources and the possible mechanisms by which these environmental contaminants act and interplay with other risk factors. Estrogens are closely related to the pathogenesis of breast cancer. Oxidative catabolism of estrogen, mediated by various cytochrome P450 enzymes, generates reactive free radicals that can cause oxidative damage. The same enzymes of estrogenic metabolic pathways catalyze biological activation of several environmental (xenobiotic) chemicals. Xenobiotic chemicals may exert their pathological effects through generation of reactive free radicals. Breast tissue can be a target of several xenobiotic agents. DNA-reactive metabolites of different xenobiotic compounds have been detected in breast tissue. Many phase I and II xenobiotic metabolizing enzymes are expressed in both normal and cancerous breast tissues. These enzymes play a significant role in the activation/detoxification of xenobiotic and endogenous compounds including estrogens. More than 30 carcinogenic chemicals are present in tobacco smoke; many of them are fat-soluble, resistant to metabolism and can be stored in breast adipose tissue. Similarly, pesticides are also known to cause oxidative stress; while some act as endocrine disruptor, some are shown to suppress apoptosis in estrogen sensitive cell lines. Reports have shown an association of smoking (both active and passive) and pesticides with breast cancer risk. However, the issues have remained controversial. Different mutagenic substances that are generated in the cooking process e.g., heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be a threat to breast tissue. PAHs and dioxins exert their adverse effects through the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), which activates several genes involved in the metabolisms of xenobiotic compounds and endogenous estrogens. These chemicals also induce AhR-dependent mitochondrial dysfunction. Many of the environmental pollutants suppress the immune system, which are implicated to risk. A better understanding about the biological effects of different environmental carcinogenic compounds and determination of their impact on rising incidence of breast cancer will be beneficial in improving preventive policy against breast cancer.

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