Open Access Open Badges Research article

Relationship of serum estrogens and estrogen metabolites to postmenopausal breast cancer risk: a nested case-control study

Roni T Falk1*, Louise A Brinton1, Joanne F Dorgan2, Barbara J Fuhrman3, Timothy D Veenstra4, Xia Xu4 and Gretchen L Gierach1

Author Affiliations

1 Hormonal and Reproductive Epidemiology Branch, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI, 6120 Executive Blvd, Bethesda, MD 20852, USA

2 Fox Chase Cancer Center, 333 Cottman Ave, Philadelphia PA 19111, USA

3 Department of Epidemiology Fay W Boozman College of Public Health, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, 4301 Markham St #820, Little Rock, AR 72205, USA

4 Advanced Technology Program, Laboratory of Proteomics and Analytical Technologies, Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, SAIC-Frederick, Inc., Frederick MD 21702, USA

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Breast Cancer Research 2013, 15:R34  doi:10.1186/bcr3416

Published: 22 April 2013



Elevated levels of circulating estrogens are linked to breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women but little is known about the importance of estrogen metabolism. A recently developed liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry-based method (LC-MS/MS) measuring a panel of 15 estrogen metabolites (EM) has been evaluated in one study, linking high levels of 2-pathway metabolites relative to the parent estrogens to reduced breast cancer risk. We analyzed this panel of EM in a nested case-control study of postmenopausal breast cancer.


Between 1977 and 1987, 6,915 women provided blood samples to the Columbia Missouri Serum Bank and were followed for incident breast cancer through December 2002. We studied 215 postmenopausal breast cancer cases and 215 matched controls who were postmenopausal and not using exogenous hormones at the time of blood draw. EM were examined individually, grouped by pathway (hydroxylation at the C-2, C-4 or C-16 positions of the steroid ring) and by ratios of the groupings. Logistic regression models controlling for matching and breast cancer risk factors were used to calculate quartile-specific odds ratios (ORs) and 95% CIs.


Significant elevated risks were not observed for individual EM, except for quartiles of 16-epiestriol (P trend = 0.07). The OR for total EM, the parent estrogens estrone and estradiol, and 2-pathway catechol EM (2-hydroxyestrone and 2-hydroxyestradiol) were elevated but the trends were not statistically significant. Among 2-pathway metabolites, risks for the highest levels of 2-hydroxyestrone-3-methyl ether and 2-methoxyestradiol were reduced; ORs for women in the highest versus lowest quartiles were 0.57 (95% CI = 0.33 to 0.99) and 0.53 (95% CI = 0.30 to 0.96), respectively. Overall, women with higher levels of 2-pathway EM had a reduced risk of breast cancer, which remained after accounting for levels of parent EM, 4-pathway EM and 16-pathway EM (all trends, P <0.11).


Women with more extensive hydroxylation along the 2-pathway may have a reduced risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Further studies are needed to clarify the risks for specific EM and complex patterns of estrogen metabolism. This will require aggregation of EM results from several studies.