Changing role of the oestrogen receptor in the life and death of breast cancer cells

Breast. 2003 Dec;12(6):432-41. doi: 10.1016/s0960-9776(03)00149-8.


The oestrogen receptor (ER) has proven to be an extraordinarily successful target for breast cancer treatment and prevention. The clinical use of tamoxifen, a nonsteroidal antioestrogen, demonstrated (1) that the strategic use of adjuvant tamoxifen in ER-positive patients could save lives and (2) that a selective ER modulator (SERM) could reduce the incidence of breast cancer in high-risk women. The ER is now the target for new and safer therapies such as the aromatase inhibitors and the pure antioestrogens that either block oestrogen synthesis or destroy the ER. However, the use of raloxifene, a SERM to prevent osteoporosis with the potential to prevent breast cancer has introduced a new dimension into preventive oncology. The widespread use of endocrine modulators (SERMs, aromatase inhibitors, and pure antioestrogens) raised the question of drug resistance. It is now clear that endocrine resistance can evolve through stages. Once a breast tumour becomes resistant to SERMs, the growth is stimulated by either the SERM or oestrogen. This is why an aromatase inhibitor is effective following SERM resistance and withdrawal. However, the extended use of repeated endocrine therapies now supersensitized the cells to oestrogen that causes apoptosis through the ER. We suggest that future clinical treatment strategies incorporate an 'oestrogen purge' to both enhance the actions of chemotherapy or completely reverse endocrine resistance and restore endocrine sensitivity. These new data build on the idea that breast cancer can be controlled as a chronic disease and will permit patients to live long and productive lives during targeted maintenance treatment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal / therapeutic use
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Drug Resistance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Phosphorylation
  • Receptors, Estrogen / physiology*
  • Tamoxifen / pharmacology
  • Tamoxifen / therapeutic use


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Hormonal
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Tamoxifen