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Harmful Chemicals May Reprogram Gene Response to Estrogen

July 2005

New research indicates that an environmental agent -specifically DES, or diethylstilbestrol, which was prescribed for women from 1938 until 1971 to prevent miscarriages - can actually change or reprogram some genes so they function differently.

NIEHS funded the two-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The results were published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study showed that exposure to harmful chemicals and drugs during critical developmental periods early in life may actually reprogram the way specific genes respond to estrogen, which could determine whether people with a genetic predisposition for a disease actually develop it.

Rats with a genetic defect that predisposed them to uterine tumors were used in the study. Nearly 100 percent of the rats exposed to DES during an early developmental stage developed uterine tumors, compared to slightly more than half of those with the genetic predisposition alone.

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