High male chimerism in the female breast shows quantitative links with cancer

Eugen Dhimolea, Viktoria Denes, Monika Lakk, Sana Al-Bazzaz, Sonya Aziz-Zaman, Monika Pilichowska, Peter Geck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Clinical observations suggest that pregnancy provides protection against cancer. The mechanisms involved, however, remain unclear. Fetal cells are known to enter the mother's circulation during pregnancy and establish microchimerism. We investigated if pregnancy-related embryonic/fetal stem cell integration plays a role in breast cancer. A high-sensitivity Y-chromosome assay was developed to trace male allogeneic cells (from male fetus) in females. Fixed-embedded samples (n = 206) from both normal and breast cancer patients were screened for microchimerism. The results were combined with matching clinicopathological and histological parameters and processed statistically. The results show that in our samples (182 informative) more than half of healthy women (56%) carried male cells in their breast tissue for decades (n = 68), while only one out of five in the cancer sample pool (21%) (n = 114) (odds ratio = 4.75, CI at 95% 2.34-9.69; p = 0.0001). The data support the notion that a biological link may exist between chimerism and tissue-integrity. The correlation, however, is non-linear, since male microchimerism in excess ("hyperchimerism") is also involved in cancer. The data suggest a link between hyperchimerism and HER2-type cancers, while decreased chimerism ("hypochimerism") associates with ER/PR-positive (luminal-type) breast cancers. Chimerism levels that correlate with protection appear to be non-random and share densities with the mammary progenitor components of the stem cell lineage in the breast. The results suggest that protection may involve stem/progenitor level interactions and implicate novel quantitative mechanisms in chimerism biology. What's new? During pregnancy, allogeneic stem/progenitor cells from the fetus integrate into adult niches in the mother, but their biology and the niches are not well known. The current study shows that a potential niche for long-term integration in the mother is the mammary gland. Using a new Y-chromosome assay the authors show that most healthy women carry male cells in their breasts, but both under- and overrepresentation correlate with breast cancer. At levels linked with tissue integrity chimeric cells share densities with mammary progenitors, pointing to novel chimeric/host stem-cell interactions that may serve to protect from cancer development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)835-842
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Cancer
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 15 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • HER2
  • Y-chromosome
  • allogeneic stem cells
  • breast cancer
  • fetal chimerism
  • pregnancy protection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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