Antiestrogens--tamoxifen, SERMs and beyond

Invest New Drugs. 1999;17(3):285-311. doi: 10.1023/a:1006348907994.


Estrogens play a central role in reproductive physiology. The cellular effects of estrogens are mediated by binding to nuclear receptors (ER) which activate transcription of genes involved in cellular growth control. At least two such receptors, designated ERalpha and ERbeta, mediate these effects in conjunction with a number of coactivators. These receptors can directly interact with other members of the steroid receptor superfamily. A complex cross-talk exists between the estrogen-signaling pathways and the downstream signaling events initiated by growth factors, such as epidermal growth factor and insulin-like growth factors. Estrogens are also a causative factor in the pathogenesis of a variety of neoplastic and non-neoplastic diseases, including breast cancer, endometrial cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids, among others. Antiestrogens, such as tamoxifen, are widely used for the treatment of breast cancer. Tamoxifen produces objective tumor shrinkage in advanced breast cancer, reduces the risk of relapse in women treated for invasive breast cancer, and prevents breast cancer in high-risk women. Although, initially developed as an antiestrogen, tamoxifen can also prevent postmenopausal osteoporosis as well as reduce cholesterol, due to its estrogen-agonist effects. Its estrogen-agonist activity, however, can lead to significant side-effects such as endometrial cancer and thromboembolic phenomena. This has led to the concept of "ideal" selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), drugs that would have the desired, tissue selective, estrogen-agonist or -antagonist effects. Raloxifene is a SERM which has the desirable mixed agonist/antagonist effects of tamoxifen but does not cause uterine stimulation. "Pure" antiestrogens may provide very potent estrogen-antagonist drugs, but are likely to be devoid of beneficial effects on bone and lipids. Future drug development efforts should focus on developing superior SERMs that have a greater efficacy against ER-positive tumors and do not cause hot flashes or thromboembolism, and explore combination strategies to simultaneously target hormone-dependent as well as hormone-independent breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Estrogen Receptor Modulators / pharmacology*
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Estrogen / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Estrogen / physiology
  • Somatomedins / physiology
  • Tamoxifen / adverse effects
  • Tamoxifen / pharmacology*
  • Tamoxifen / therapeutic use
  • Transcriptional Activation / drug effects


  • Estrogen Receptor Modulators
  • Estrogens
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Somatomedins
  • Tamoxifen