Background: Patients receiving adjuvant tamoxifen whose tumors express high levels of both HER2/neu (HER2) and the estrogen receptor (ER) coactivator AIB1 often develop tamoxifen resistance. We used a breast cancer model system with high expression of AIB1 and HER2 to investigate the possible mechanisms underlying this resistance.
Methods: MCF-7 breast cancer cells, which express high levels of AIB1, and a tamoxifen-resistant derivative cell line engineered to overexpress HER2 (MCF-7/HER2-18) were treated with estrogen, tamoxifen, epidermal growth factor (EGF), or heregulin in the absence or presence of the EGF receptor (EGFR) tyrosine kinase inhibitor gefitinib. We analyzed phosphorylation of signaling intermediates by immunoblotting, ER transcriptional activity with reporter gene constructs and immunoblot analysis of endogenous gene products, promoter assembly by chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) assay, and tumor cell growth in vitro by anchorage-independent colony formation and in vivo using xenografts in nude mice.
Results: MCF-7/HER2-18 tumors were completely growth inhibited by estrogen deprivation but were growth stimulated by tamoxifen. Molecular cross-talk between the ER and HER2 pathways was increased in the MCF-7/HER-2 cells compared with MCF-7 cells, with cross-phosphorylation and activation of both the ER and the EGFR/HER2 receptors, the signaling molecules AKT and ERK 1,2 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), and AIB1 itself with both estrogen and tamoxifen treatment. Tamoxifen recruited coactivator complexes (ER, AIB1, CBP, p300) to the ER-regulated pS2 gene promoter in MCF-7/HER2-18 cells and corepressor complexes (NCoR, histone deacetylase 3) in MCF-7 cells. Gefitinib pretreatment blocked receptor cross-talk, reestablished corepressor complexes with tamoxifen-bound ER on target gene promoters, eliminated tamoxifen's agonist effects, and restored its antitumor activity both in vitro and in vivo in MCF-7/HER2-18 cells.
Conclusions: Tamoxifen behaves as an estrogen agonist in breast cancer cells that express high levels of AIB1 and HER2, resulting in de novo resistance. Gefitinib's ability to eliminate this cross-talk and to restore tamoxifen's antitumor effects should be tested in the clinic.