Estrogen Receptors: Selective Ligands, Partners, and Distinctive Pharmacology

Recent Prog Horm Res. 2000;55:163-93; discussion 194-5.


The action of nuclear hormone receptors is tripartite, involving the receptor, its ligands, and its co-regulator proteins. The estrogen receptor (ER), a member of this superfamily, is a hormone-regulated transcription factor that mediates the effects of estrogens and anti-estrogens (e.g., tamoxifen) in breast cancer and other estrogen target cells. This chapter presents our recent work on several aspects of estrogen action and the function of the ER: 1) elucidation of ER structure-function relationships and development of ligands that are selective for one of the two ER subtypes, ERalpha or ERbeta; 2) identification of ER-selective co-regulators that potentiate the inhibitory effectiveness of anti-estrogens and dominant-negative ERs and modulate the activity of estrogens; 3) characterization of genes that are regulated by the anti-estrogen-ER versus the estrogen-ER complex; and 4) elucidation of the intriguing pharmacology of these ER complexes at different gene regulatory sites. These findings indicate that different residues of the ER hormone-binding domain are involved in the recognition of structurally distinct estrogens and anti-estrogens and highlight the exquisite precision of the regulation of ER activities by ligands, with small changes in ligand structure resulting in major changes in receptor character. Studies also explore the biology and distinct pharmacology mediated by ERalpha and ERbeta complexed with different ligands through different target genes. The upregulation of the anti-oxidant detoxifying phase II enzyme, quinone reductase, by the anti-estrogen-occupied ER, mediated via the electrophile response element in the QR gene, may contribute to the beneficial antioxidant effects of anti-estrogens in breast cancer and illustrates the activation of some genes by ER via non-estrogen response element sequences. The intriguing biology of estrogen in its diverse target cells is thus determined by the structure of the ligand, the ER subtype involved, the nature of the hormone-responsive gene promoter, and the character and balance of co-activators and co-repressors that modulate the cellular response to the ER-ligand complex. The continuing development of novel ligands and the study of how they function as selective agonists or antagonists through ERalpha or ERbeta should allow optimized tissue selectivity of these agents for hormone replacement therapy and treatment and prevention of breast cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Estrogens / chemistry
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Receptors, Estrogen / chemistry
  • Receptors, Estrogen / genetics
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism*
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism


  • Estrogens
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Repressor Proteins
  • prohibitin