Breast cancer tissue estrogens and their manipulation with aromatase inhibitors and inactivators

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2003 Sep;86(3-5):245-53. doi: 10.1016/s0960-0760(03)00364-9.


Despite the dramatic fall in plasma estrogen levels at menopause, only minor differences in breast tissue estrogen levels have been reported comparing pre- and postmenopausal women. Thus, postmenopausal breast tissue has the ability to maintain concentrations of estrone (E1) and estradiol (E2) that are 2-10- and 10-20-fold higher than the corresponding plasma estrogen levels. This finding may be explained by uptake of estrogens from the circulation and/or local estrogen production. Local aromatase activity in breast tissue seems to be of crucial importance for the local estrogen production in some patients while uptake from the circulation may be more important in other patients. Beside aromatase, breast tissue expresses estrogen sulfotransferase and sulfatase as well as dehydrogenase activity, allowing estrogen storage and release in the cells as well as conversions between estrone and estradiol. The activity of the enzyme network in breast cancer tissue is modified by a variety of factors like growth factors and cytokines. Aromatase inhibitors have been used for more than two decades in the treatment of postmenopausal metastatic breast cancer and are currently investigated in the adjuvant treatment and even prevention of breast cancer. Novel aromatase inhibitors and inactivators have been shown to suppress plasma estrogen levels effectively in postmenopausal breast cancer patients. However, knowledge about the influence of these drugs on estrogen levels in breast cancer tissue is limited. Using a novel HPLC-RIA method developed for the determination of breast tissue estrogen concentrations, we measured tissue E1, E2 and estrone sulfate (E1S) levels in postmenopausal breast cancer patients before and during treatment with anastrozole. Our findings revealed high breast tumor tissue estrogen concentrations that were effectively decreased by anastrozole. While E1S was the dominating estrogen fraction in the plasma, estradiol was the estrogen fraction with the highest concentration in tumor tissue. Moreover, plasma estrogen levels did not correlate with tissue estrogen concentrations. The overall experience with aromatase inhibitors and inactivators concerning their influences on breast tissue estrogen concentrations is summarized.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anastrozole
  • Animals
  • Aromatase Inhibitors*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Estradiol / analysis
  • Estradiol / metabolism
  • Estrogens / blood
  • Estrogens / metabolism*
  • Estrone / analogs & derivatives*
  • Estrone / analysis
  • Estrone / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Nitriles / pharmacology
  • Postmenopause / metabolism
  • Radioimmunoassay / methods
  • Triazoles / pharmacology


  • Aromatase Inhibitors
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Estrogens
  • Nitriles
  • Triazoles
  • Estrone
  • Anastrozole
  • Estradiol
  • estrone sulfate