During the menstrual cycle, the mammary gland goes through sequential waves of proliferation and apoptosis. In mammary epithelial cells, hormonal and non-hormonal factors regulate apoptosis. To determine the cyclical effects of gonadal steroids on breast homeostasis, we evaluated the apoptotic index (AI) determined by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) staining in human mammary epithelial cells during the spontaneous menstrual cycle and correlated it with cellular proliferation as determined by the expression of Ki-67 during the same period.
Normal breast tissue samples were obtained from 42 randomly selected patients in the proliferative (n = 21) and luteal (n = 21) phases. Menstrual cycle phase characterization was based on the date of the last and subsequent menses, and on progesterone serum levels obtained at the time of biopsy.
The proliferation index (PI), defined as the number of Ki-67-positive nuclei per 1,000 epithelial cells, was significantly larger in the luteal phase (30.46) than in the follicular phase (13.45; P = 0.0033). The AI was defined as the number of TUNEL-positive cells per 1,000 epithelial cells. The average AI values in both phases of the menstrual cycle were not statistically significant (P = 0.21). However, the cell renewal index (CRI = PI/AI) was significantly higher in the luteal phase (P = 0.033). A significant cyclical variation of PI, AI and CRI was observed. PI and AI peaks occurred on about the 24th day of the menstrual cycle, whereas the CRI reached higher values on the 28th day.
We conclude that proliferative activity is dependent mainly on hormonal fluctuations, whereas apoptotic activity is probably regulated by hormonal and non-hormonal factors.