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Cancer as development gone awry: the case for bisphenol-A as a carcinogen

  • C. Sonnenschein (a1), P. R. Wadia (a1), B. S. Rubin (a1) and A. M. Soto (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 23 February 2011

The discovery of a rare clear cell carcinoma of the vagina in young women gestationally exposed to the estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) lent empirical support to the hypothesis that prenatal exposure to xenoestrogens might cause cancer. This fact contradicted two well-accepted notions: (i) mammalian development was merely the unfolding of a genetic program and (ii) only mutagenic agents could cause cancer. The ecological developmental biology (eco–devo) movement revitalized the concept of developmental plasticity through the occurrence of polyphenisms whereby a single genotype produces diverse phenotypes which are determined by environmental cues. Based on the principles of eco–devo and the tissue organization field theory of carcinogenesis, we hypothesized that developmental exposure to xenoestrogens increased the propensity to develop mammary cancer during adulthood. Bisphenol-A (BPA), a ubiquitous xenoestrogen, was chosen as a model for environmental estrogen exposure. In mice, perinatal exposure to environmentally relevant BPA levels induced alterations of the mammary gland architecture which manifested during fetal morphogenesis and throughout life, including the development of pre-neoplastic lesions. In rats, gestational exposure to BPA induced pre-neoplastic lesions and carcinoma in situ that manifested in adulthood in the absence of any additional treatment. Emerging epidemiological data reveal an increased incidence of breast cancer in women exposed to DES during gestation. Hence, both animal experiments and epidemiological data strengthen the hypothesis that fetal exposure to xenoestrogens may be an underlying cause of the increased incidence of breast cancer observed over the past 50 years.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Dr A. M. Soto, Program in Cellular Molecular and Developmental Biology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA 02111, USA. (Emails,
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