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Breast cancer women lack normal lifelong immune response after full-term pregnancies

Immunological tolerance during pregnancy is necessary for women’s bodies to accept the semi-allogenic fetus. Interestingly, “immune evasion”, which consists of some similar immunological changes, was recently proposed as a hallmark of cancer. Looking at these results, it seems paradoxical that increasing number of full-term pregnancies (FTP) reduces the risk of breast cancer in women. Our aim was to use a systems epidemiology approach to investigate this paradox by modelling breast cancer incidence as a function of parity in the Norwegian Women and Cancer (NOWAC) cohort, then testing the mathematical model using gene expression from blood in a subcohort of these women: the NOWAC postgenome cohort. Lastly, we undertook a gene set enrichment analysis for immunological gene sets. A linear trend nicely fitted the dataset showing an 8% decrease in risk for each FTP, independent of stratification on other risk factors and lasting for decades after a woman’s last FTP. However, when we looked at gene expression we found that hundreds of genes showed linear trends in cancer-free controls, but this was not the case in /any/ of the samples from breast cancer cases. In the gene set enrichment analysis, samples consisted of human blood or cord blood and mouse bone marrow or spleen. We found more adaptive gene sets than expected in humans and more innate gene sets than expected in mice. None of the gene sets provided information about the long-term effects of immunological tolerance during pregnancy, but the lack of relevant reductionist experiments hampers our interpretation. We suggest that, after resolution at birth, the immunological tolerance induced by pregnancy augments immune response to cancer development.

Click on a Dataset ID in the table below to learn more, and to find out who to contact about access to these data

Dataset ID Description Technology Samples
EGAD00010001412 Illumina HumanWG-6 version 3 or Illumina HumanHT-12 expression bead chip, combined on identical nucleotide universal identifiers. 920