Aromatase and its inhibitors

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. Apr-Jun 1999;69(1-6):205-10. doi: 10.1016/s0960-0760(99)00051-5.


Inhibitors of aromatase (estrogen synthetase) have been developed as treatment for postmenopausal breast cancer. Both steroidal substrate analogs, type I inhibitors, which inactivate the enzyme and non-steroidal competitive reversible, type II inhibitors, are now available. 4-hydroxyandrostenedione (4-OHA), the first selective aromatase inhibitor, has been shown to reduce serum estrogen concentrations and cause complete and partial responses in approximately 25% of patients with hormone responsive disease who have relapsed from previous endocrine treatment. Letrozole (CGS 20, 269) and anastrozole (ZN 1033) have been recently approved for treatment. Both suppress serum estrogen levels to the limit of assay detection. Letrozole has been shown to be significantly superior to megace in overall response rates and time to treatment failure, whereas anastrozole was found to improve survival in comparison to megace. Both were better tolerated than the latter. The potential of aromatase within the breast as a significant source of estrogen mediating tumor proliferation and which might determine the outcome of inhibitor treatment was explored. Using immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization, aromatase and mRNAarom was detected mainly in the epithelial cells of the terminal ductal lobular units (TDLU) of the normal breast and also in breast tumor epithelial cells as well as some stromal cells. Increase in proliferation, measured by increased thymidine incorporation into DNA and by PCNA immunostaining in response to testosterone was observed in histocultures of breast cancer samples. This effect could be inhibited by 4-OHA and implies that intratumoral aromatase has functional significance. An intratumoral aromatase model in the ovariectomized nude mouse was developed which simulated the hormone responsive postmenopausal breast cancer patient. This model also allows evaluation of the efficacy of aromatase inhibitors and antiestrogens in tumors of estrogen receptor positive, human breast carcinoma cells transfected with the human aromatase gene. Thus, the cells synthesized estrogen which stimulated tumor formation. Both aromatase inhibitors and antiestrogens were effective in suppressing tumor growth in this model. However, letrozole was more effective than tamoxifen. When the aromatase inhibitors were combined with tamoxifen, tumor growth was suppressed to about the same extent as with the aromatase inhibitors alone. Thus, there was no additive or synergistic effects of combining tamoxifen with aromatase inhibitors. This suggests that sequential treatment with these agents is likely to be more beneficial to the patient in terms of longer response to treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aromatase Inhibitors*
  • Breast / enzymology
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Humans


  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • Enzyme Inhibitors