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


  • The study was conducted after Human Experimentation Review by the Institutional Review Board at Tufts University.

Correspondence to: Peter Geck, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA 02111, USA, Tel.: 617-636-2796, E-mail: peter.geck@tufts.edu


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.