Prolactin and Breast Cancer Etiology: An Epidemiologic Perspective



A number of epidemiologic studies of prolactin and breast cancer etiology have recently become available. Retrospective case-control studies have suggested a modest positive or null relationship between circulating prolactin concentrations and risk of breast cancer. However these studies are limited by small sample sizes and the collection of blood after case diagnosis. Several large prospective studies, in which blood was collected prior to diagnosis, have observed modest positive associations between prolactin and risk. In a pooled analysis of ~80% of the world’s prospective data, the relative risk (RR) comparing women in the top vs bottom quartile of prolactin levels was 1.3 (95% confidence interval (CI): 1.1, 1.6, p-trend = 0.002). The results were similar for premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Most notably, high prolactin levels were associated with a 60% increased risk of estrogen receptor (ER) positive tumors, but not with ER negative tumors. Limited genetic data suggest a role of polymorphisms in the prolactin and prolactin receptor genes in risk of breast cancer. Studies of survival have suggested that high pretreatment prolactin levels were associated with treatment failure, earlier recurrence, and worse overall survival. Parity and certain medications are the only confirmed factors associated with prolactin levels in women. Overall, epidemiologic data suggest that prolactin is involved in breast cancer etiology. Further research to better elucidate these associations and their underlying mechanisms is warranted.


Prolactin Breast cancer risk Breast cancer survival Menopausal status 



relative risk


confidence interval


estrogen receptor


Nurses’ Health Study


Nurses’ Health Study II






progesterone receptor


single nucleotide polymorphism


insulin-like growth factor



Support for this project was from NIH grants P01 CA87969, CA49449, and CA119139.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Channing Laboratory, Department of MedicineBrigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of EpidemiologyHarvard School of Public HealthBostonUSA

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