A possible link between the pubertal growth of girls and breast cancer in their daughters

David J.P. Barker, Clive Osmond, Kent L. Thornburg, Eero Kajantie, Tom J. Forsen, Johan G. Eriksson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


One hypothesis for the origins of breast cancer is that it is initiated by exposure of developing breast tissue in utero to maternal sex hormones. The sex hormone profile is established at puberty, when it regulates growth of the pelvic bones. The pubertal growth of girls is characterized by broadening and rounding of the pelvis. The maximal width between their iliac crests, the intercristal width, increases more rapidly than in boys. We hypothesized that higher sex hormone concentrations at puberty produce larger intercristal widths, and these are markers of increased breast cancer risk in the next generation. We followed up 6,370 women who were born in Helsinki during 1934-1944, and whose mothers' pelvic bones were measured during routine antenatal care. Women whose mothers had large intercristal widths had higher rates of breast cancer. In those born at or after 40 weeks gestation, the hazard ratio for breast cancer was 3.7 (95% CI: 2.1-6.6) if their mother's intercristal width was greater than 30 cm. Among women born to multiparous mothers this hazard ratio rose to 7.2 (3.4-15.4). Hazard ratios for breast cancer were also higher in the daughters of mothers with round iliac crests. Pelvic bone measurements which increase similarly in girls and boys at puberty did not predict breast cancer. We conclude that the intercristal width, and the roundness of the iliac crests, are markers of mothers' sex hormones, and postulate that high concentrations cause genetic instability in differentiating breast cells in their daughters in utero.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)127-131
Number of pages5
JournalAmerican Journal of Human Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Genetics


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