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Cancer Biol Ther. 2013 Jul;14(7):564-73. doi: 10.4161/cbt.24599. Epub 2013 May 10.

Exposure to estrogen and ionizing radiation causes epigenetic dysregulation, activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways, and genome instability in the mammary gland of ACI rats.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada.


The impact of environmental mutagens and carcinogens on the mammary gland has recently received a lot of attention. Among the most generally accepted carcinogenic agents identified as factors that may increase breast cancer incidence are ionizing radiation and elevated estrogen levels. However, the molecular mechanisms of mammary gland aberrations associated with radiation and estrogen exposure still need to be further elucidated, especially the interplay between elevated hormone levels and radiation. Therefore, in the present study, we investigated molecular changes induced in rat mammary gland tissue by estrogen, ionizing radiation, and the combined action of these two carcinogens using a well-established ACI rat model. We found that continuous exposure of intact female ACI rats to elevated levels of estrogen or to both estrogen and radiation resulted in significant hyperproliferative changes in rat mammary glands. In contrast, radiation exposure alone did not induce hyperplasia. Interestingly, despite the obvious disparity in mammary gland morphology, we did not detect significant differences in the levels of genomic methylation among animals exposed to estrogen, radiation, or both agents together. Specifically, we observed a significant global genomic hypomethylation at 6 weeks of exposure. However, by 12 and 18 weeks, the levels of global DNA methylation returned to those of age-matched controls. We also found that combined exposure to radiation and estrogen significantly altered the levels of histone H3 and H4 methylation and acetylation. Most importantly, we for the first time demonstrated that estrogen and radiation exposure caused a significant induction of p42/44 MAPK and p38 pathways that was paralleled by elevated levels of H3S10 phosphorylation, a well-established biomarker of genome and chromosome instability. The precise role of MAPK pathways and their inter-relationship with H3S10 phosphorylation and genome instability in mammary gland tissues needs to be explored further.


DNA methylation; breast cancer; epigenetics; estrogen; histones; ionizing radiation; mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways

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