• Home
  • Pamphlets and Brochures
  • Donate now
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Please read

Our Helplines

Motherisk Helpline
1-877-439-2744 (Toll-free)
416-813-6780 (Toronto and GTA)

Alcohol and Substance

Pregnant 'DES daughters' and their offspring

Tal Schechter, MD Yaron Finkelstein, MD Gideon Koren, MD, FRCPC

April 2005



I am a 34-year-old woman in my second trimester of pregnancy. My mother took diethylstilbestrol when she was pregnant with me. Could my expected child be affected by this?


Animal studies suggest the child could be affected, but little data on humans strongly support this. You could plan to have your child monitored for a potential, though unlikely, effect.


Je suis une femme de 34 ans et j'en suis à mon deuxième trimestre de grossesse. Ma mère a pris du diéthylstilboestrol lorsqu'elle était enceinte de moi. L'enfant que je porte pourrait-il en être affecté?


Des études sur les animaux donnent à croire que l'enfant pourrait en être affecté mais très peu de données concernant les humains appuient cette conclusion de manière convaincante. Vous pourriez prévoir de faire vérifier votre enfant pour détecter des effets possibles mais peu probables.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a potent synthetic estrogen widely prescribed to pregnant women between 1938 and 1971 to improve outcome of pregnancy.1 Results of several epidemiologic studies in the early 1970s showed that use of DES during pregnancy was associated with a substantial increase in vaginal and cervical clear-cell adenocarcinoma and genital tract abnormalities in adolescent girls exposed to DES in utero.2,3 There was also an increased risk of first- and second-trimester spontaneous abortions, ectopic pregnancies, and preterm deliveries among daughters who had been exposed.4

An association between in utero exposure to DES and abnormalities of men’s urogenital systems was also found.5,6 The most common abnormalities are epididymal cysts, undescended testes, and small testes. A recent study suggested an increased incidence of testicular cancer among men exposed in utero to DES.7

When early reports of increased frequency of uterine and ovarian adenocarcinoma in offspring of mice exposed in utero to DES were first published in the mid-1980s,8,9 they raised concern regarding possible adverse effects on the third generation of humans exposed to DES.

A study of 28 daughters (mean age 20 years) of women exposed to DES in utero showed that these third-generation women had no abnormalities of the genital tract, and no cases of endometrial, ovarian, cervical, or vaginal carcinoma, or intraepithelial neoplasia of the cervix or vagina were detected.10 Review of their mothers’ records indicated that 61.5% of the mothers exposed to DES in utero had structural changes of the cervix, upper vagina, or vaginal epithelium. The main limitations of this study were the small sample size and the age of the women, who might have been too young to reflect the true rate of subsequent genital malignancies.

The absence of abnormalities of the lower genital tract in third-generation women compared with the high frequency of these abnormalities in their mothers suggests that third-generation carry-over effects of DES exposure are rare.

A recent case report of an ovarian malignancy in a third-generation adolescent11 raised the possibility of an association between her malignancy and her grandmother’s use of DES. The authors described a 15-year-old girl with small cell carcinoma of the ovary whose maternal grandmother had been taking DES while she was pregnant with the patient’s mother. Although this is an anecdotal case, the rarity of this disorder suggests that DES exposure could have a trans-generational effect.

An increased rate of hypospadias has recently been reported in third-generation men. A Dutch cohort study compared 205 sons of women who were exposed to DES in utero with 8934 men with no such history. Four (2%) of the exposed sons had hypospadias, compared with nine (0.01%) in the control group.12

Differences between human and mice models in the effects of DES on the third generation suggest that the effect observed in mice is much greater than in humans. Nevertheless, some authors recommend that third-generation women should be examined carefully for presence of DES-associated changes.10

A variety of theories have been proposed for the mechanism of action of multi-generational effects of DES. In mice, the carcinogenicity of DES can apparently be transmitted from prenatally exposed offspring to the next generation. Germ cell mutation has been implicated as the mode of transmission of the genotoxic effect.9 Imprinting might be another mode of transmission.


  1. Stillman RJ. In utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol adverse effects on the reproductive tract and reproductive performance in male and female offspring. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1982;142:905-21.
  2. Herbst AL, Ulfelder H, Poskanzer DC. Adenocarcinoma of the vagina. Association of maternal stilbestrol therapy with tumor appearance in young women. N Engl J Med 1971;284:878-81.
  3. Jefferies JA, Robboy SJ, O’Brien PC, Bergstralh EJ, Labarthe DR, Barnes AB, et al. Structural anomalies of the cervix and vagina in women enrolled in the Diethylstilbestrol Adenosis (DESAD) Project. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1984;148:59-66.
  4. Kaufman RH, Adam E, Hatch EE, Noller K, Herbst AL, Palmer JR, et al. Continued follow-up of pregnancy outcomes in diethylstilbestrol-exposed offspring. Obstet Gynecol 2000;96:483-9.
  5. Driscoll SG, Taylor SH. Effects of prenatal maternal estrogen on the male urogenital system. Obstet Gynecol 1980;56:537-42.
  6. Whitehead ED, Leiter E. Genital abnormalities and abnormal semen analyses in male patients exposed to diethylstilbelstrol in utero. J Urol 1981;125:47-50.
  7. Strohsnitter WC, Noller KL, Hoover RN, Robboy SJ, Palmer JR, Titus-Ernstoff L, et al. Cancer risk in men exposed in utero to diethylstilbestrol. J Natl Cancer Inst 2001;93:545-51.
  8. Walker BE. Tumors of female offspring of mice exposed prenatally to diethylstilbestrol. J Natl Cancer Inst 1984;73:133-40.
  9. Walker BE, Kurth LA. Multi-generational carcinogenesis from diethylstilbestrol investigated by blastocyst transfers in mice. Int J Cancer 1995;61:249-52.
  10. Kaufman RH, Adam E. Findings in female offspring of women exposed in utero to diethylstilbestrol. Obstet Gynecol 2002;99:197-200.
  11. Blatt J, Van Le L, Weiner T, Sailer S. Ovarian carcinoma in an adolescent with transgenerational exposure to diethylstilbestrol. J Pediatr Hematol Oncol 2003;25:635-6.
  12. Klip H, Verloop J, van Gool JD, Koster M, Burger CW, van Leeuwen FE, et al. Hypospadias in sons of women exposed to diethylstilbestrol in utero: a cohort study. Lancet 2002;359:1102-7.

Motherisk questions are prepared by the Motherisk Team at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ont. Drs Schechter and Finkelstein are members and Dr Koren is Director of the Motherisk Program. Dr Koren, a Senior Scientist at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, is supported by the Research Leadership for Better Pharmacotherapy during Pregnancy and Lactation and, in part, by a grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

Published Motherisk Updates are available on the College of Family Physicians of Canada website.

Copyright Canadian Family Physician 2005;51:493-4.
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional [Valid RSS]

Motherisk is a proud affiliate of MotherToBaby, an information service of the non-profit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) across North America.

* - "MOTHERISK - Treating the mother - Protecting the unborn" is an official mark of The Hospital for Sick Children. All rights reserved.

The information on this website is not intended as a substitute for the advice and care of your doctor or other health-care provider. Always consult your doctor if you have any questions about exposures during pregnancy and before you take any medications.

Copyright © 1999-2018 The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). All rights reserved.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is a health-care, teaching and research centre dedicated exclusively to children; affiliated with the University of Toronto. For general inquires please call: 416-813-1500.

  |  Contact SickKids  |  Terms of Use