Breast Cancer Research and Treatment

, Volume 172, Issue 1, pp 209–219 | Cite as

Pro-inflammatory cytokines and growth factors in human milk: an exploratory analysis of racial differences to inform breast cancer etiology

  • Jeanne MurphyEmail author
  • Ruth M. Pfeiffer
  • Brittny C. Davis Lynn
  • Ana I. Caballero
  • Eva P. Browne
  • Elizabeth C. Punska
  • Hannah P. Yang
  • Roni T. Falk
  • Douglas L. Anderton
  • Gretchen L. Gierach
  • Kathleen F. Arcaro
  • Mark E. Sherman



Analysis of cytokines and growth factors in human milk offers a noninvasive approach for studying the microenvironment of the postpartum breast, which may better reflect tissue levels than testing blood samples. Given that Black women have a higher incidence of early-onset breast cancers than White women, we hypothesized that milk of the former contains higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, adipokines, and growth factors.


Participants included 130 Black and 162 White women without a history of a breast biopsy who completed a health assessment questionnaire and donated milk for research. Concentrations of 15 analytes in milk were examined using two multiplex and 4 single-analyte electrochemiluminescent sandwich assays to measure pro-inflammatory cytokines, angiogenesis factors, and adipokines. Mixed-effects ordinal logistic regression was used to identify determinants of analyte levels and to compare results by race, with adjustment for confounders. Factor analysis was used to examine covariation among analytes.


Thirteen of 15 analytes were detected in ≥ 25% of the human milk specimens. In multivariable models, elevated BMI was significantly associated with increased concentrations of 5 cytokines: IL-1β, bFGF, FASL, EGF, and leptin (all p-trend < 0.05). Black women had significantly higher levels of leptin and IL-1β, controlling for BMI. Factor analysis of analyte levels identified two factors related to inflammation and growth factor pathways.


This exploratory study demonstrated the feasibility of measuring pro-inflammatory cytokines, adipokines, and angiogenesis factors in human milk, and revealed higher levels of some pro-inflammatory factors, as well as increased leptin levels, among Black as compared with White women.


Human milk Breast cancer risk Prevention Race 



Funding was provided by National Cancer Institute (Bench to Bedside Award) to authors Mark E. Sherman, Kathleen F. Arcaro, and Gretchen L. Gierach.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors state they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10549_2018_4907_MOESM1_ESM.docx (38 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 38 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeanne Murphy
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author return OK on get
  • Ruth M. Pfeiffer
    • 3
  • Brittny C. Davis Lynn
    • 3
  • Ana I. Caballero
    • 4
  • Eva P. Browne
    • 4
  • Elizabeth C. Punska
    • 4
  • Hannah P. Yang
    • 3
  • Roni T. Falk
    • 3
  • Douglas L. Anderton
    • 5
  • Gretchen L. Gierach
    • 3
  • Kathleen F. Arcaro
    • 4
  • Mark E. Sherman
    • 6
  1. 1.George Washington University School of NursingWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Division of Cancer PreventionNational Cancer InstituteBethesdaUSA
  3. 3.Division of Cancer Epidemiology and GeneticsNational Cancer InstituteBethesdaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Veterinary and Animal SciencesUniversity of Massachusetts AmherstAmherstUSA
  5. 5.Department of Sociology, Sloan CollegeUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  6. 6.Department of Health Sciences ResearchMayo ClinicJacksonvilleUSA

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