Based on experimental and epidemiological evidence it is hypothesized that estrogen increases breast cancer risk by increasing mitotic activity in breast epithelial cells. Aromatase is crucial to the biosynthesis of estrogens and may therefore play a role in breast cancer development. Supporting data for an etiological role of aromatase in breast tumor biology are several-fold. First, the association between weight and postmenopausal breast cancer risk may be mediated by aromatase. Secondly, a pilot study found a higher aromatase expression in normal breast adipose tissue from breast cancer cases as opposed to healthy women. Thirdly, experimental data in animals suggest that aromatase activity predisposes mammary tissue to preneoplastic and neoplastic changes. In a multiethnic cohort study conducted in Los Angeles and on Hawaii we investigated (i) whether the plasma estrone to androstenedione (E1/A) ratio in different ethnic groups was associated with ethnic differences in breast cancer incidence, and (ii) whether genetic variation in the CYP19 gene encoding the P450 aromatase protein was associated with breast cancer risk. The age- and weight-adjusted ethnic specific E1/A ratios x 100 among women without oophorectomy were 7.92 in African-Americans, 8.22 in Japanese, 10.73 in Latinas and 9.29 in non-Latina Whites (P=0.09). The high E1/A ratio in Latina women was not associated with a high breast cancer incidence; in fact Latina women had the lowest breast cancer incidence in the cohort observed so far. We found no consistent association of an intronic (TTTA)n repeat polymorphism with breast cancer risk in different ethnic groups. This polymorphism was not associated with differences in the plasma E1/A ratio in a way that would predict its functional relevance. We describe a newly identified TTC deletion in intron 5 of the CYP19 gene that is associated with the (TTTA)n repeat polymorphism. Neither this polymorphism, nor a polymorphism at codon 264 in exon VII of the CYP19 gene, was associated with breast cancer. We did not identify any genetic variation in exon VIII in 54 African-American subjects. We identified rare genetic variants of unknown functional relevance in the promoter 1.4 of the CYP19 gene in 3 out of 24 Latina women. Further investigation into the role of aromatase in breast cancer etiology is important, given that the potential use of aromatase inhibitors as breast cancer chemopreventives depends on these results.
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