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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Sex hormones raise breast risk
Woman
The study focused on older women
High levels of sex hormones in older women can double their risk of breast cancer, say researchers.

Postmenopausal women with high amounts of oestrogen and testosterone in their bloodstream are at over twice the risk of the disease as those with low levels of the hormones, according to the study.


Our research may allow testing to predict a woman's risk of breast cancer

Dr Tim Key
The researchers say testing for sex hormones may ultimately lead to useful ways of predicting a woman's risk, while learning more about the causes of breast cancer may bring new ways of preventing the disease.

Obesity is the biggest known reason for high levels of sex hormones among postmenopausal women.

Therefore, scientists believe that maintaining a healthy weight could help women bring down their breast cancer risk.

Big analysis

Researchers from Cancer Research UK's Epidemiology Unit in Oxford pooled together data from nine separate studies, carried out in the UK, US, Italy and Japan, and including a total of 1765 healthy women and 663 with breast cancer.

In each study, blood samples were taken from postmenopausal women, levels of sex hormones were measured and women were followed for a number of years to see who developed breast cancer.

By combining the results from all nine studies, scientists were able for the first time to reliably estimate the effect of postmenopausal hormone levels on breast cancer risk.

For each of the hormones tested, researchers compared one fifth of women with the highest blood levels with the fifth with the lowest.

High levels of free estradiol - an active form of oestrogen - more than doubled the risk of breast cancer compared with women who had low levels of the hormone.

Those with high levels of testosterone were also at more than twice the risk.

Key molecule

The study also found that women with raised levels of a molecule called sex hormone binding globulin, which reduces the activity of sex hormones, were at lower than usual risk.

Women who are obese have low levels of this molecule, which probably also helps to raise their risk of breast cancer.

Team leader Dr Tim Key said: "We've known for some time that reproductive and hormonal factors were involved in the development of breast cancer.

"But until now, we haven't had strong evidence for a direct link between the blood levels of 'natural' hormones and risk of the disease. Our study confirms that high levels of sex hormones can raise risk.

"In the future, our research may allow testing to predict a woman's risk of breast cancer and could provide leads for improved drugs to help prevent the disease.

"But meanwhile it's important that women try to maintain a healthy weight, since this will reduce their blood oestrogen levels and breast cancer risk."

Sir Paul Nurse, Director General of Cancer Research UK, says: "Obesity is responsible for about 7% of the UK's cancer deaths.

"This important study establishes one of the reasons for this link, highlighting the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.

"And in the future, it may be possible to reduce the risk of cancer in women with high levels of sex hormones."

The research is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

See also:

14 Apr 02 | Health
'Smart tablet' for breast cancer
09 Apr 02 | Health
Breast cancer risk for large mums
19 Mar 02 | Health
Breast screening benefits hailed
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